New York

“Another Girl, Another Planet”

Lawrence Rubin Greenberg van Doren

Girls, girls, girls! The “it” show this spring was unquestionably “Another Girl, Another Planet,” which assembled the work of thirteen young photographers from several countries, all but one of them women, taking pictures of women and girls. Enough press accumulated around the show to generate speculation as to its meaning, not to mention a bit of a backlash. Complainers smelled a fix, masterminded by cocurator Gregory Crewdson, who taught six of the artists at Yale. This is nothing new—recall the plethora of (largely male) students of John Baldessari and Mike Kelley flooding the art world in the ’80s. There was predictable grumbling, too, concerning the mediagenic quality of many of the artists. Another familiar story—if successful young women artists in general are an unusually lithe slice of the female community (cf. the recent article in the New York Times), looks certainly never hurt Alexis Rockman or Matthew Barney. In other words, yes, the bunch of artists and pictures have a hook (shocking!), but the real interest lies elsewhere.

What from a distance looks like a sociological phenomenon becomes, close up, a disparate collection of technique and intent. The most immediately likable photographs, and the ones most frequently reproduced, are the Hudson River pastorals of Justine Kurland. Gaggles of awkward but ultimately lovely girls hang from trees, hit the swimming hole, French braid one another’s hair. Equally beautiful but slightly chillier are the British home and garden photos by Sarah Jones. Katy Grannan’s semidocumentary, full-frame images of young women stiffly posing in their own homes are uneasy but enormously present and absorbing. The subjects of other photographs run from disturbing sexuality (Malerie Marder) to sweet absurdity Jitka Hanzlová’s Dance with Goat, 1993) to captured moment (Dayanita Singh’s Samara and Pooja Mukherjee, New Delhi, 1998).

What do these images have in common? Aside from a marked set of influences—indeed, the show may signal the emergence of the first generation of artists to take for granted the twin (if antithetical) lessons of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin—the emphasis here is on narrative. Many of the loose stories stretch across a series, such as those depicting runaway girls (Jenny Gage’s real-life drifters and Kurland’s utopian vision of a girls-only society). I find the more compact, iconographic narratives suggested within single frames, such as those by Sarah Dobai and Dana Hoey, less successful; their artifice isolates them from each other, and from any real-world experience. The broader projects depict the photographers’ conception and execution as much as any fictional narrative: Grannan placed an ad in an upstate newspaper for models, Jones has worked with the same group of village girls for years, Hanzlová returned to her hometown in the Czech Republic. This structure and engagement over rime pays off, investing each image with a specificity and a sense of the artist herself.

And ultimately, while only Vibeke Tandberg makes self-portraits (doubled through the magic of Photoshop), we do sense an elision of the distance between the young women who shot the photographs and the ones in the photographs. Is it the traditional double bind of the woman artist as both subject and object? Perhaps more precisely, the artists seem to understand and identify with the fragility and fierceness of girls, finding (as do Karen Kilimnik and Elizabeth Peyton) that as a social group they evoke certain stares and feelings that persist in later life. Male artists (Kelley, Jim Shaw) tend to ironize or abjectify adolescence; there is little cultural nostalgia for the teenage male, Larry Clark aside. The traits we associate with that awkward period between childhood and adulthood—hesitancy, ripeness, awkwardness, self-involvement, emotional intensity—seem to jibe more readily with conventional femininity than masculinity. It’s easier for these women to have tender feelings about adolescence, to remember and imagine their own, recently relinquished, while capturing that of others.

To fully develop these complexities, many of the artists, while skilled photographers, turn away from photography, iconography of painting (Jones, Kurland, Hoey, Dobai) and film (Gage, Marder, Liza May Post). They control the images, stage and create them, as much as they seize on and fix a reflection of the world. In this context, it comes almost as a shock to see the work of Singh, Grannan, and Gabriel Brandt (the token male, looking too much like Rineke Dijkstra), who deploy the look and tradition of documentary photography. Photography, as conceived here, is a big tent, with room for both the real and the imaginary. Just as young painters miraculously find new and interesting ways to negotiate abstraction and representation, young photographers come up with new and interesting ways of addressing truth and fiction. Buzz aside, these photographs apply not so much the new math of postfeminism (hotness = self-empowerment) as what we might call postrealism: expression, allegory, and documentation melting into seamless if unsettling pictures, with a feeling that is quite new.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.