Through Nov. 11. PPOW Gallery, 392 Broadway, Manhattan; 212-647-1044, ppowgallery.com.
Bloodshed is virtually absent in Hilary Harkness’s “Prisoners From the Front,” a suite of paintings at PPOW that takes Winslow Homer’s 1866 painting bearing the same title as its starting point. Instead, the show is a virtuosic theater piece in which soldiers and civilians enact scenarios highlighting race, gender, class and sexuality in the American Civil War era.
Expertly drawn, jewel-like canvases feature Black and white soldiers — often women, transgender or nonbinary characters — and Southern belles ending up in same-sex or fluid trysts. Harkness is actively “queering” Civil War history but also focusing on lesser-known groups, like the free Black Americans who were supposedly “emancipated” thereafter. In the back room, a handful of older paintings by Harkness explore with similar, exquisite detail, the art world coteries of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris in the 1920s and New York in the 1940s, with figures like Jackson Pollock and Peggy Guggenheim.
Harkness’s thrust is both political and personal. She carefully researched Homer’s painting as well as Civil War history. Her wife, Ara, is African American, which raises the query: What if Ara and Harkness had fallen in love 165 years ago in America? In this sense, her paintings, which veer into the madcap and deliciously absurd, are distinctly activist. Pictorial realism sits next to Rococo humor. However, if history had gone down anything like Harkness’s intersectional universe, the Civil War would never have happened at all.