JOYCE KOZLOFF: Girlhood
On ViewDC Moore
October 5 – November 4, 2017
In Girlhood, Joyce Kozloff has extended her twenty-plus year practice of map paintings in a new and very personal direction. During the poignant chore of going through her parents’ effects after their deaths, Kozloff discovered a collection of her grade-school art assignments. In Girlhood, she has combined these relics from her past with naively rendered maps of her own design and reproductions of centuries-old maps that share that naïve quality. Girlhood also includes Boy’s Art, a series Kozloff composed after 9-11 that combines reproductions of battlefields with cut-outs of soldiers and the like from her son’s childhood drawings. To a degree, Boy’s Art prefigures Kozloff’s new series. However, what makes Girlhood so engrossing is the powerful intersection of her own past with maps stretching from antiquity through America’s colonial past to the ‘50s of her childhood. Kozloff’s artistic sensibility and longstanding feminist commitment make her ideally suited to using her personal historical record as a lever to pry apart the contradictions and power dynamics at work in the prevailing narratives of her childhood. The maps that make up the backgrounds to her paintings also make useful foils for that work. Envisioning a return to a past that never was, the xenophobia taking over our political landscape today makes Kozloff’s current cartographic exercise a very timely one.
Red States, Blue States (2017), makes a straightforward commentary on the founding mythologies that divide Americans. Kozloff’s childhood drawings have a great deal of charm, of course, but also tend to bring us up short as we clearly see the narratives being fed to a young New Jersey girl during the depths of the Cold War. Colored pencil drawings of cowboys on the requisite horses adorn the work’s top left and bottom center, while on the bottom right we see a snowy scene, likely inspired by a Jack London story, of a warmly dressed man petting a husky attempting to lick his face. Additional drawings of wide-open spaces similarly reverberate with echoes of Manifest Destiny. Floating between these images of America, the land of the Rugged Individualist, are cutouts of actual states, such as Texas and California, lined with appropriately red or blue borders. Her drawings float on what appears to be an ancient map, in Latin, of the Mediterranean world. As happened in Roman history, is America the republic, at the height of its military powers, soon to be so riven by internal dissension that the result will be a dictatorship? As Kozloff proves through her drawings, the seeds to our current political paralysis were sown in the soil of nationalist hubris at least a generation ago.
Less direct in its political implications, but equally illuminating, Then and Now, (2017) dominates Girlhood both in scale and in the breadth of its ambition. In it Kozloff takes on the thorny problem of intersectionality, particularly the limitations it has exposed in feminism from the ‘60s and early ‘70s in its failure to provide a broadly unifying political agenda for subsequent eras. The top of Then and Now has a shelf that holds ten dolls from the ‘50s of stereotypical women and girls from different walks of life and nationalities—a Persian doll, a nurse doll, a southern belle doll, a black Caribbean doll, a milk maid, a Thai dancer doll, among others. Kozloff’s childhood drawings in colored pencil and pen make a frame around the background map. They feature portraits, scenes of farms, scientific gear, still-lives, landscapes, a menorah, and so forth. The underlying map appears to be an old map of North America. Are the dolls stand-ins for the women that built the colonies of North America? Tellingly we don’t see a Native American doll. We do see traces of Kozloff’s autobiography, as an artistically inclined young Jewish girl, with the flower drawings, landscapes, and menorah. Is Kozloff equating her immigrant experience with other immigrants? The “Then” in the title of the painting is understandable enough, as we like to believe we no longer trade in the bald stereotypes on view on the painting’s shelf. Or, as the second half of the title implies, do we continue to do so, hampering our abilities to understand what truly separates us?
Kozloff makes some big statements, but it is important to note that a great deal of humor leavens what she has to say. Art Girl (2017), has a doll on its top shelf that uncannily resembles a young Joyce—long hair parted down the middle, glasses and all—struggling over a canvas, teetering on the tips of her toes. That humor, and Kozloff’s vulnerability in putting her childhood on public display, including notes from the teacher (“Excellent work!”), removes all traces of ironic emotional divestiture. Instead, what we have is a heart-felt testimony from an artist whose awareness has allowed her to chart how the currents of history have flowed through her childhood, a time that she has said feels more remote than the foreign lands depicted on her maps. Kozloff grew out of the naïve beliefs of her country and its past that were so much a part of the ‘50s. What is most disturbing about this show, and for Kozloff is really the point, is the fact that there are large swaths of the American population that, out of denial or delusion, still harbor those beliefs.