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Review: Ritual and Ruin showcases haunting Civil War-era photomontages

The exhibition at Cole Pratt runs through Sept. 19

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What is it about the Civil War? It killed more Americans than both world wars and Vietnam combined, yet the stark realities of that horrific conflict often are veiled in mystery. Although neither side understood what we now call "human rights," only one side fought to own humans like livestock. The wealthy often have avoided warfare, but in that conflict only one side exempted rich slave owners from the draft. My father's Confederate ancestors faced a dire choice: Fight for the planter oligarchy or abandon home and head north. Those grim realities were glossed over in gauzy romantic fantasies such as Gone With the Wind that gave the old South a hold on the popular imagination for generations — until more realistic accounts like 12 Years a Slave came along. This Ritual and Ruin show of Civil War-era images on panoramic metal plates montaged with David Knox's photography explores the shattered yet surreal dreams the Lost Cause left in its wake.

  Civil War photographs often are striking for the dramatic intensity that attends those living on the edge of annihilation. In 7 Kings, a group of army officers poses atop a battle-blasted earthen ziggurat as ironclad gunboats patrol the troubled waters below. The figures are stiff as statues, but their surroundings seem to crackle with the foggy fury of war. Harbingers of the Last Judgment depicts a dugout where dazed troops slouch warily as ghostly white horses graze a pock-marked field and a stately mansion rises in the distance. In The Ordination of Tobin Porter Brown (pictured), a drummer boy and a broom-wielding slave guard an ornate gateway to a street reduced to ruins as an army general and his wife pose placidly behind a picket fence. In all of these panoramic collage prints, the figures and landscapes are hauntingly real, but their dreamy composition reflects what Joan Didion called "a memory haunted landscape" where souls sundered by war's unholy madness must contemplate and try to make peace with their fate.

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