Historical Fiction: David Knox at Cole Pratt Gallery

Dillon Raborn visits David Knox’s current show at Cole Pratt Gallery, which blends photographs from the Civil War and present day.

David Knox, The Ordination of Tobin Porter Brown, 2017. Archival pigment print on aluminum. Courtesy the artist and Cole Pratt Gallery, New Orleans.

Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

Matthew 28:24

Cole Pratt Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Ritual and Ruin: Tableaux of a Lost War,” features new aluminum photomontage prints by David Knox, depicting surreal images of 19th-century American battlefields and ruins. Conscious fictions are staged within these bleak theaters, made from a combination of the artist’s own images and samples of Civil War photography from the Library of Congress archives. Each piece carries anywhere between 20 and 40 layers of digitally collaged, black-and-white imagery. The works in “Ritual and Ruin” invoke early photographic mediums such as the tintype, the Daguerreotype, and the wet-collodion method, though viewers are made quite aware of Knox’s contemporary farce. Most of the show features symmetrical compositions with laterally reflected backgrounds—in homage to the double vision of 19th-century stereographs—and some subjects have been clearly pasted in, flat out disrupting the images’ spatial sense.

Each of these characteristics is present in The Ordination of Tobin Porter Brown, 2017, which shows at center two figures standing about a columned, classical entrance. Alongside a supply of cannonballs, one figure (presumably Brown himself, a character invented by the artist) stands beneath the gateway: a stately, decorated, wide-eyed black man, broom in hand. The other is a military snare-drummer, positioned before a short iron railing. At right, a white picket fence staked in a neatly arranged pile of rubble surrounds an aristocratic white couple, the wife in full dress seated by her uniformed husband who stands at attention. They watch the ceremony taking place within their half-destroyed city, of which at least one bit of architecture is a contemporary building, camouflaged by the artist to fit the scene. This last fact alone reveals Knox’s intentions to contextualize past and present as mutually framing forces: The present both derives from and interprets history. To that end, this body of work comments on historical fiction’s sometimes unsettling ability to hold agency over historical fact.

Other elements repeat themselves throughout the show. For example, a small relief depicting a handshake which caps the center of the gateway in The Ordination of Tobin Porter Brown reappears in the sky of The Occupation, 2017. Some of the monumental objects and figures populating these landscapes exhibit a noticeable transparency, emitting a ghostly atmosphere amid a near tangible, stoic presence. This is amplified by the haunting narratives brought about by apocalyptic titles pulled from biblical passages such as The Second Resurrection, Sounding of the Sixth Trumpet, and There the Vultures Will Gather, all 2017. Knox beautifully executes a seamless marriage between an old-world aesthetic and a contemporary medium, and his application of a broad lexicon of antebellum imagery, such as Southern belles, steamboats, and distant plantations, pictorially condenses the gulf between 1861 and 2017. Ideas of Southern heritage and the historic legitimacy of the short-lived Confederacy have foregrounded the political stage in New Orleans and the wider southern United States—most recently in Charlottesville, Virginia—since the summer of 2015, following the terrorism of white supremacist Dylann Roof. In the wake of Roof’s outspoken loyalty to Lost Cause sentiments, Mayor Mitch Landrieu implored the City Council to consider a vote on relocating four of New Orleans’ most prominent, Reconstruction Era monuments to the Confederacy—a process which was approved in December 2015 and completed in May of this year.

David Knox, Prophecy in Exile, 2017. Archival pigment print on aluminum. Courtesy the artist and Cole Pratt Gallery, New Orleans.

And in July, these themes began to transition from the arena of public space into the world of on-demand entertainment when HBO announced plans for Confederate, a new series that will be led by the creators of the popular Game of Thrones. According to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the series will explore an imagined chronology in which the Confederate States of America successfully defended themselves against efforts by the North to forcefully reunite the United States following the South’s secession. As such, the timeline envisions the institution of slavery as it survives within the contemporary Confederacy. The show’s plot centers around characters debating pro- and anti-slavery sentiments even as a Third American Civil War looms on the horizon.

While it is too early to predict the impact of HBO’s latest idea, the premise of a television show exploring a timeline without Emancipation sparked significant outcry online. Strong reactions came partially as the announcement seemed to mark the pop-culture commercialization of gravely important discussions about white supremacy and its relationship to the Confederacy, as well as the network’s surprising (or unsurprising) blind eye to the fact that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in The Atlantic, “African-Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fictions, to tell them that this ‘history is still with us.’ It’s right outside our door.” However, the production of such a show speaks volumes about our culture’s fascination with and desire to examine one of the defining events of modern America through the powerful medium of historical fiction. It is as if, having failed thus far to properly digest the meaning of the Civil War and its colossal moral implications for our daily lives, we turn to the supposedly safer form of fiction for closure.

Fictions have power, and presenting those fictions tangibly can open them to re-evaluation. Key to Knox’s photographs, however, is the ambiguity of narrative in his alternative histories, playing out in worlds without specific parameters. His specters with their blank expressions and hesitant comprehension of their bizarre afterlives exist in a dystopian world somewhere between 1861 and 2017, which right now feels sadly more reflective of the present moment than we might wish.

Editor's Note

David Knox’s “Ritual and Ruin: Tableaux of a Lost War” is on view through September 9, 2017, at Cole Pratt Gallery (3800 Magazine Street) in New Orleans.