Justine Kurland: Girl Pictures, 1997-2002 @Mitchell-Innes & Nash

JTF (just the facts): A total of 69 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are c-prints from the series Girl Pictures, made between 1997 and 2002. Each is sized 11×14 inches, and no edition information was provided on the checklist. A monograph of this body of work has been published by the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Almost regardless of the time period and the geography, the larger motif of the teenage runaway constantly seems to renew itself. From the doomed romance of Romeo and Juliet and the backwoods Americana of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the fugitive flight of Bonnie and Clyde and the dystopian trials of countless young adult novels published in the last decade or two, teenage runaways across the history of literature and film have deliberately left the comforts of home, boldly set out on their own, and often painfully discovered the realities of what the world has to offer. At their core, these kinds of stories are classic coming of age and hero’s journey constructs, built on a complex mix of companionship, adventure, freedom, and hard earned growing up.

Back in the late 1990s, as Justine Kurland was finishing up her MFA at Yale, she began a photographic project using adolescent girls as the subject for a series of carefully staged road trip scenes taken across the United States. Taken over the period of roughly five years, and encompassing anonymous roadsides, forests, mountains, and deserts, the images from Girl Pictures oscillate between casual intimacy and mannered construction, the combination of the two creating subtleties of aesthetic friction. When seen together (the works are displayed here as a complete set for the first time since they were made), the photographs form a taxonomy of teenage behaviors, interactions, and myths, where each tiny resonant vignette becomes part of a larger thematic brocade.

The innocence of youth and the joy of unfettered play are ideas that recur in many of these pictures, but Kurland rarely allows them to be too one sided in their sugary sweetness. Groups of girls do eat ice cream in fields of wild flowers, toss candy in the air in the hopes of catching it in their mouths, blow bubbles, play with balls and hula hoops and puppies, dance in the warm afternoon sun, have kung fu fights, swim in lazy summer rivers, and make daisy chains and snow angels, but many of these scenes are tempered by the intrusion of the subtle ugliness of reality. Concrete overpasses, parking lots, rusting infrastructure, barbed wire fences, and highways repeatedly decorate these idyllic moments, adding a dash of dissonance to otherwise happy memories.

Kurland balances these images with a range of pictures that document the darker side of runaway life. The girls hitchhike in the dark strafed by headlights, wander through the grimness of empty truck stops, and camp out under overpasses and near dirty canals and waterways. Their makeshift shelters and tents are seen again and again, and the hardships of the road bring out the get-it-done toughness in the girls, as they make do with tooth brushing in a ditch, warming themselves by a fire lit in an old can, or scavenging dinner from roadkill, a deer carried from deep in the forest, a roasted pig on a wooden spit, or ketchup sandwiches. In nearly all of these scenes, there is a deliberate back and forth set up between the beauty of nature and the realities of homelessness, where the girls are captured living in the cracks where wildness meets civilization.

The rebellious streak that led these girls to fictitiously run away in the first place finds its outlet in other activities. The girls set off smoke bombs, shoot guns in the desert, jump barrier fences, and hang out (and have sex) in rusty abandoned cars. And while boys are generally absent from this feminine narrative, when they do appear, they are generally subjected to various forms of “boy torture”, from being strung up and prodded with a stick or held down and spit on to being subjected to love games of covered eyes and playful flashing.

But the most common theme in this series isn’t any one place, or task, or road trip hardship, but instead the subtle study of quieter moments of idleness, where togetherness and companionship find their roots. And it is in these pictures that Kurland’s overt stage managing melts away a bit and plausibly authentic emotions and relationships seem to emerge. Whether the girls sit on a wall in a Toys R Us parking lot, cluster on playground swings, hang out in a public bathroom changing clothes and reading magazines, or take a break underneath an overpass, Kurland is really showing us the nuances of female connection. These are pictures about listening, and tenderness, and sharing space, and a variety of grooming rituals provide the chance for intimacy and personal touch, even when they take place under a tarp, on a rocky hillside, or involve leeches. Walking in pairs is another common activity, where girls face the dangers of the world together, at the edge of a salt lake, on a snowy mound, scrambling up a roadside ditch, walking through the scrubby desert, or peering through the nighttime woods with a flashlight, the shared experience building their confidence and bringing them closer together.

When Kurland shows us a girl on her own, especially after so many images of girls in groups, the isolating effect is much more pronounced. Individual girls wander through the enveloping fog, sit alone by the roadside, or stumble through a burning forest, and it is in these pictures that we feel the intense separation of the road, the danger of being alone made more visually obvious. Other images go the other way and expand the gatherings to larger numbers of girls, either arraying them into foreground, midground, and background bunches (carefully set in compositional layers), or turning them into crowds that lie in the sand, scamper through grassy meadows, or walk in extended lines on something like a school field trip, the community effect (and the safety in numbers confidence) spreading out the cover the land.

As a body of work, what is perhaps remarkable is how well this early still-in-grad-school-and-just-out effort by Kurland has aged. What remains durably intriguing is how Kurland has deftly organized and controlled the action. At times, she manages things too much and the result is a scene that feels too heavy handed and stagey. But for the most part, her arrangement of these mini-stories falls into a narrow window where we clearly understand that she has precisely created the set up, but are also willing to suspend our disbelief so that the wider mythmaking can proceed anyway. The echoes and lessons from DiCorcia, Crewdson, and even various 19th century painters undeniably ring in the distance here, but Kurland has been willing to walk closer to an intimate form of naturalism, and this gives her stage-managed girl-power narrative an engaging spark of relatable truth.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are being sold as a single set of 69 prints, with the price POR (likely for an institutional buyer). Larger 30×40 inch prints are available of the individual images, priced at $10000 each. Kurland’s work has slowly begun to enter the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $6000.

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