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Ragged Glory 

History has been a timely topic in the local art world this year, with the New Orleans Museum of Art's big Louisiana Purchase show leading the way. Now the Contemporary Arts Center offers its own look back with John Huddleston's Killing Ground study of Civil War battlefields, and we may ask: how does history fit into the art world of 2003? The answer may depend on who is asking the question, and what preconceptions they bring with them.

Unlike the NOMA blockbuster, which was really a history show in an art museum, Huddleston pursues a conceptual art tack. And the concept itself is pretty straightforward, a look at Civil War battlefields in photos from the period contrasted side by side with photographs how those same sites look in recent times. He even used a cumbersome 8-by-10-inch view camera like those employed by Civil War photographers in the field, and the whole project must have been very time consuming and research intensive. The results are both revealing and unsettling.

For instance, 70,000 American Casualties, Petersburg, Virginia, features a period photo of the "Bombproof Quarters at Ft. Sedgwick, a Key Position on the Eastern Siege Line," a kind of honeycomb of trenches and hillside dugouts like the remains of a Paleolithic mud-dweller compound. A text box reports that the battle lines extended for 30 miles and the siege itself lasted for almost a year, killing tens of thousands before it broke the Confederate resistance once and for all. Paired with it is a color photo of the Site of Ft. Sedgwick today, now home to a distinctly un-heroic looking K-Mart.

Yes, a K-Mart. If some of the old photos of soldiers and battle sites are stirring for their sense of heroic struggle, the sight of a K-Mart on the same site causes one's inner "Battle Hymn of the Republic" soundtrack to instantly morph into Muzak. And, in fact, Huddleston's book of the same title caught some flak in the Amazon.com reader reviews, one of which called it "a disservice to the memory of the Civil War," in what was obviously a case of blaming the messenger. After all, the Civil War covered so much ground that it couldn't all be set aside for memorials, and the business of America has always been business, so this project merely points out what happened along the way. Mine eyes have seen the glory ... and it was a K-Mart.

Much of the rest assumes a similar tone. Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill, Louisiana shows the site of the Battlefield at Wilson's Farm as it looks today, a rusting cluster of industrial storage tanks surrounded by weed-choked fields. Union Defensive Line at Nashville on the Second Day of Battle is one of those epochal scenes of a vast army encampment of tents and weapons stretching as far as the eye can see, as bored soldiers stand around chatting or cooking, whiling away the hours leading up to the next assault. This is paired with a contemporary color photo of the same site, a view of a parking lot, the distinguishing feature of which is a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign featuring the visage of Colonel Sanders beaming above an illuminated plastic reminder: "Hot Wings are Here." There are also lots of cars, an American flag rising over a Taco Bell and, facing the street, a road sign that reads: "Right Lane MUST Turn Right."

What makes this a conceptual show rather than a photography show is the artlessness of Huddleston's imagery. Where someone like William Eggleston could photograph similar material and make it somehow epiphanic in its banality, Huddleston's images are merely matter-of-factly banal, period. You also know it's a conceptual show because he displays examples of dirt and other objects from the field beside the photos -- a telltale conceptual signature. And if it makes for an academically interesting survey of where we've been and what we've come to, it all seems to work better as a book, where the intimacy of the format draws you in. In either case, the effect is sobering. Where the Civil War marked a breakdown of civil discourse, the suburban sprawl that now covers those killing fields of yesteryear marks an aesthetic breakdown of a far more insidious sort.

click to enlarge Mine eyes have seen the K-Mart: John Huddleston - shows how our landscape has changed since the - Civil War in works such as Site of Ft. - Sedgwick.
  • Mine eyes have seen the K-Mart: John Huddleston shows how our landscape has changed since the Civil War in works such as Site of Ft. Sedgwick.
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