Justine Kurland, This Train is Bound for Glory @Mitchell-Innes & Nash

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color images, framed in white with no mat, and hung in the entry and the large main gallery space. The works are c-prints, in editions of 6, made between 2007 and 2009. The prints range in size from 11×14 to 40×50, with a few intermediate sizes in between. A monograph of this body of work is being published by Ecstatic Peace Library. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Unlike most of the contemporary photography shows on view this Fall, Justine Kurland’s recent body of work doesn’t follow the usual theme and variation project formula, but instead brings together a group of pictures that seem to illustrate a single all-encompassing atmospheric narrative; it’s as if these pictures were taken from an illustrated novel, each one depicting a particular moment in the adventure story.

The recent tough economic times have brought a nearly endless set of comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Kurland’s subject matter is a portrait of the “neo-hobo” lifestyle, a 21st century version of the Great Depression wanderer: down on his luck, homeless, off in the wilderness, riding the rails to get from place to place. This old time, folk song narrative is infused with a more contemporary “off the grid” environmental sentiment; perhaps these people are living this life because of economic hardships or maybe they have simply chosen to get away from society and try to find some meaning out in the woods.

The sequencing of the images in the show brings several motifs back again and again:

  • boxcars, hopper cars, tracks through the mountains, bridges, tunnels, the long S-shaped lines of distant freight trains off in the distance
  • scratched out campgrounds, lean-tos, temporary structures of sticks and plastic tarps, shelters made of cardboard and plastic milk crates
  • old men (vagrants, ramblers, travelers, mountain men) with scruffy beards and grubby clothing, naked children, sleeping in the back of a van or roaming in the weeds, bohemian backpackers communing with nature

Many of Kurland’s images have the carefully composed quality of 19th century genre paintings, where the characters have been placed in the environment (along a riverside, perched on a fallen log, etc.) in such a way as to enhance the mood or to be representative of a larger allegorical idea/lifestyle. Unlike the documentary reality of the FSA pictures of the 1930s, Kurland’s works have a romantic, utopian feel to them, a nostalgic back-to-the-land wildness and freedom, out on the frontier. And while there are fringe elements in all cultures, these pictures seem especially American to me, with a Huck Finn sensibility of self reliance and exploration, even if the times are hard.

This is a body of work that I think will be most successful in book form. While there are a few images that can easily stand on their own, the entire set of pictures is an evocative mood piece, where smaller pictures and train landscapes help fill in the gaps and details of the broader and larger narrative line; the best pictures benefit from being surrounded by the others. Overall, the images grew on me as I wandered through the gallery, and I left with the feeling of having been spun a yarn by an accomplished story teller.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price between $2500 and $12000, based on size, with the middle range sizes priced at $6500, $7500 or $8500. Kurland’s work has a very limited track record at auction – a handful of prints, in a range between $3000 and $6000, but not really enough sales to definitively chart a price trend. While these pictures don’t fit into our collecting scheme in any way, I think they would be a solid fit for collectors interested in tableau-style work (the Crewdson/Yale school). As an aside, these works also reminded me of Alec Soth’s recent body of work from the South; check them both out for a comparison of approaches to similar subject matter.

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