New York

Justine Kurland

Gorney Bravin & Lee

Art-world cliques are mixed blessings. On the ascendant, a group of artists closely linked by medium, style, and subject, as well as by the institutions where they study and exhibit, can quickly gain an aesthetic cohesiveness harder for mavericks to establish. Once the clique has peaked, however, such identifications stale, propping up work that fails on its own terms and hampering new assessments even when the work succeeds. Justine Kurland's recent exhibition vaulted into the freshly intriguing category. So how to parse this project that owes much to, yet substantially transforms, its template?

In the five years since she received her MFA from the Yale photography program, Kurland's all-girl universe has been defined in relation to the careers of fellow alumnae Anna Gaskell, Dana Hoey, and Jenny Gage, all of whom pursue in various ways the theatrical, psychosexual, advertising- and fashion-inflected tableaux favored by the program's den father, Gregory Crewdson. Infused with a blend of glamour and criticality, their pictures of mythically potent nymphets intimate an equivalence between the young women being photographed and those behind the camera—an enticing but uneasy symmetry summed up by Katy Siege1 in these pages as “the new math of postfeminism (hotness = self-empowerment).”

Kurland's technique—her dreamily intricate framing, crisp deep focus, and saturated color—has not changed, nor has her interest in the archetypes of all-female societies. But with “In Community, Skyblue,” 2001-2002, a series made while visiting back-to-the-land enclaves in Virginia and California, Kurland's allegorical bent has a new kink.The artist maintains the atmosphere of erotic camaraderie and lilting corruption while refining the terms under which beauty and authority entwine. Most important, she has stopped photographing only teenagers.

Men and children appear in a suite of C-prints and a smaller set of silver gelatin prints taken on the communes, an acknowledgment of family affiliations and sexual maturity previously banished from Kurland's scenes. The sylvan color shots are populated by squads of adult women, mostly nude, engaged in garden chores: weeding, watering, gathering produce or flowers, cutting brush. Romantic rural idyll holds sway, and Kurland's attunement to landscape persists. Mists and sunlight, leaves and petals hang poised in Edenic clarity, and compositions such as Cattails and Swamp Fronds and Red Zinnia, both 2001, project a friezelike, still-unravished-bride-of-quietness gravitas, the women's pearly skin contrasting with but unalienated from encroaching verdure. The classicizing slant is torqued, however, by the strenuous labor being performed and by the homeyness of the women's bodies. Haphazard ponytails and drooping breasts abound. Babies crawl underfoot. These are not unravished brides, and they seem happy with that (one of them is, in fact, Kurland's mother).

Kurland persuaded her subjects to pose nude, and “performance” is a key concept here. But, unlike the gangs of girls once cast by the photographer, these people actually do live together, and the daily grind of utopia differs profoundly from its temporary setup as a photo shoot. When Kurland departs, her subjects will presumably keep doing what she shows them doing, albeit clothed. Acknowledging this fact, Kurland's silver prints portray the hippie farmers dressed and posed in loose ranks with their kids. If the C-prints contain as much rollicking Brueghel as serene Poussin, the black-and-whites are like Farm Service Agency documents produced by some groovy new-millennium shadow government. Kurland's photographic fantasy has shifted from the creation of a pretend community to participation in an extant one. The artist begins to distance herself from the Yale contingent with a nuanced blending of documentary and the wish—here temporarily fulfilled—for an ur-community of benevolent amazons. All to the good, because beauty may be truth and truth beauty, but desire is a riddle, and only complicated answers help.

Frances Richard