Despite its geographic location, New Orleans isn’t “really” the South, in the same sense that Miami isn’t “really” like the rest of Florida or Manhattan is “really” just an island off the coast of America. It is sufficiently Southern, however, that when I moved here over a decade ago from New York I heard at least three people over the course of a month refer to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression” — including my then boyfriend (now husband). Of course, he was being facetious. Then I met his family. They were absolutely serious.
The point is that in many ways, the Civil War remains somehow more immediate in the collective consciousness of the South to a greater degree than it did where I came from, despite its determinative effect on American identity as a whole. It’s something I kept thinking about while visiting a recent show at the Good Children Gallery, a collectively-organized artist-run space that has established itself as one of the most vital exhibition spaces in New Orleans.
Curated by Sophie Lvoff (no mean artist herself), “Grant v. Lee” featured the work of fourteen artists, both from New Orleans and further afield, who attempted to engage the conflict in question through a wide assortment of media and theoretical approaches. Far from being a mere exercise in nostalgia, the exhibition presented many of the artists with the opportunity to, in Lyoff”s words, “gently and subtly evoke the times and culture of the Civil War while bringing up significant questions about raceand nationalism that we continue to ask today.”
Indeed, the works which were most successful in “Grant v. Lee” were the ones which addressed the conflict and its legacy most obliquely. Agustina Woodgate‘s floor covering, constructed from the discarded skins of stuffed animals, brought to mind traditional Southern and Victorian-era handicrafts and reminded the viewer of the particular hardships and losses faced by women left at home while their husbands, brothers, and sons were off killing each other. Likewise, Katherine Wolkoff‘s photograph of a grassy landscape in which the viewer can barely detect the recently departed presence of a (living? dead?) body served as a kind of gentler but no less chilling coda to Civil War photographers Mathew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan‘s images of bloated corpses strewn across an empty battlefield. And Paul Mpagi Sepuya‘s excerpts from a series of works depicting the rural Louisiana homes and surrounding landscapes of members of his extended family gently but powerfully underlined some of the far-reaching effects the war was to have on issues of race and class in the American South.
Not all works in the show were quite as subtle, or as successful; I’m still trying to decide whether Nina Schwanse‘s shrill “Civil Realness”, in which the artist double cast herself as two drag queens taking on the personas of Lee and Grant, was a brilliant transposition of the conflict to the reality show era or just plain annoying (though something tells me it would’ve at least been more entertaining had Schwanse cast actual drag queens in the roles). Watch it and judge for yourself.
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