New York

Justine Kurland

Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Behind images always lie other images, and the shadow of the visual archive falls heavily on photographs of the American West—partly because of the region’s role in the formation of America’s sense of itself, partly because Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and others made not merely national but photographic history (hey! much more important) with the pioneering pictures they began to take there in the mid-nineteenth century. In the late 1970s, Mark Klett and other photographers explicitly recognized this doubleness of present and past through their work on the Rephotographic Survey Project, revisiting the sites of historic Western photographs to reshoot them in their present-day shape. Juxtaposing the old photos and the new ones pointed most obviously to a century of changes in the landscape, but also, in a more subterranean way, to shifts in identity and imagination.

Something similar happens with Justine Kurland’s photographs of the West, though she is not re-creating earlier images. And where the first Western photographers of course shot in black and white, as did Klett’s rephotographing crew, Kurland uses color, and quite gorgeous color at that. Even so, her pictures constantly bring earlier ones to mind, and not just still images but movies: the classic Hollywood westerns, directed by Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah and most of all John Ford. Beyond his iconic captures of Western landscapes, Ford seems particularly relevant to Kurland through his absorption in ideas about community, how to build it, what constitutes it, its way of both supporting and constricting—themes that both the landscape and the history of the West gave him and give Kurland quite special ways to examine.

Kurland’s previous body of work, “Of Woman Born,” 2006, imagined largely female communities of mothers and small children in wild country ranging from Texas to the Pacific Northwest. The new show, “This Train Is Bound for Glory”—a title that, in quoting Woody Guthrie, invokes a vibrant tradition of creative and communal vagrancy on society’s edges—focuses on male and female wanderers in the West, often near railway lines, inviting us to see these characters as offspring of Guthrie-period hobos. In Astride Mama Burro, Now Dead, 2007, for example, a white-bearded, raggedy-clothed guy bearing a battered resemblance to Kris Kristofferson leads a donkey team along the tracks; behind him a freight train heads off toward distant blue hills. In Counting Hoppers, 2008, a little boy (Kurland’s son, Casper) watches freight cars passing under rocky cliffs by a river. Implicit in these images is some prospect, perhaps not of escape, but of existing outside, of finding a way not to fit, or not to be fitted in. This possibility becomes clearer in Hemp Bracelet for Spanging, 2009, and Land of the Lost, 2008, showing young backpackers camped calmly in deep forest, one playing the violin. The sense of isolate reverie in these pictures matches the slightly giddy utopianism manifest in “Of Woman Born.”

The railway is absent from these latter works, though, and elsewhere Kurland handles its image carefully, aware of its ideological glamour in narratives of how the West was won. The earlier photographers and directors whose images her work summons probably wouldn’t have framed the freight train the way she does in Counting Hoppers: Disappearing out of either end of the picture, an apparently endless sequence of identical units, neither engine nor caboose in sight, it becomes an ambiguous sign, an industrial interloper in a rural landscape. In some of its appearances—as the serpentine form winding through an uninhabited plain in Like a Black Snake, 2008, say—the train is close to sinister, but the color and scale of the photographs continue to involve us in romance, showing the West as rich and strange. Taking her place in a great visual tradition, Kurland sets off a vital conversation on its old sense of promise.

David Frankel