Mitchell-Innes & Nash | September 4 – October 11, 2014
In 1970, there was a pop hit that promised, “I’m your vehicle baby, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” These lyrics perfectly epitomize the transcendental nature of America’s relationship to the automobile, from the time the first Model T rolled off of Ford’s assembly line to today, when reissues of G.M. muscle cars like Camaros and Chargers conspicuously consume ever more costly fossil fuels. Justine Kurland was born a year before “Vehicle” hit the charts and was about 4 years old when, in 1973, gas shortages related to an OPEC embargo threatened to curtail the dream of going wherever one wanted to go. That shocking reality check turned the country’s heavy-metal car culture, with its momentum calibrated in larger and larger engine blocks, into an endangered species overnight. Since then the fantasy has been reduced to a state of conditional, fragmented subcultures of auto-identification, sometimes whittled right down to an individual’s obsessive fetish. The photographs in Kurland’s recent show at Mitchell–Innes & Nash speak to this narrowed perspective through formal tropes that pay oblique homage to the tradition of car iconography inherited from the likes of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Ralph Goings, Ed Keinholz, Richard Prince, Big Daddy Roth, and many other high- and low-art precedents. This is a deep field to tackle and one has to admire Kurland for steering head-on into what might be deemed an exhausted genre. In fact, it might be this very exhaustion that compelled the artist to develop this series, or, like another pop song dated to the year of the artist’s birth states, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The images in Sincere Auto Care include scenarios of greasy men or boys engaged with body and engine overhauls, a few empty-lot landscapes, and a few more intimate portraits, some including the artist’s son, who accompanied her on these road trip shoots. The scenes are either posed or caught off-hand; with Kurland the boundaries between the two are typically blurred. Also included are a number of close-ups of smashed windshields and deconstructed cars of various vintage and model. In “Cadillac Junkyard” (2012), a white sedan dominates an otherwise wrecked lot overgrown with Joshua trees, serving as a class counterpoint to the blue travel van that appears to be a makeshift home, draped partially in tarps and guarded by a husky in “Van Wolf” (2011). The artist manages to maintain the uneasy flux of the summarily junked and perennially revivified dream of vehicular transcendence, whether the physical forensics bear this out or not.
Kurland made her name in the late ’90s after graduating from Yale, where she studied with Gregory Crewdson and Philip Lorca diCorcia. She made her mark with a series of photo-documentary-cum-utopian-projections relating the human figure (mostly unclothed) in pastoral settings such as communes in Virginia and California. Similar to that of her mentors, Kurland’s photographic style is developed out of a cinematic mise-en-scène, a feeling for stills that could be read as episodic and connected to a larger, more epic, narrative. There is something ingenuous, some empathetic subtext to her earlier work that was closer to diCorcia’s reality soliloquies than Crewdson’s more sterile set-ups. What made Kurland’s initial series interesting was her focus on social subject matter rather than mere surface affect; she was involved in documenting and proselytizing for a more engaged and enlightened relationship with the land and with her fellow travelers in the “family of man.” In this show, she has shifted from this type of utopian projection toward the gritty and dystopian. Blakean songs of innocence can take that experiential arc toward the cynical, uniquely so within the American Dream landscape of accelerated aspiration and crushed fenders. This latest grouping of work feels rather forlorn, as Kurland displays mixed emotions about the resilience of that landscape and its dissembled embodiment.
There is a hungry and somewhat jaundiced eye evident behind this show that rapaciously forages the territory of the body shop and the salvage yard for allegories of reduced visibility and arrested development. Works like “Draped Glass” (2014) and “Crash” (2013), images of a wrecked window and a dissembled car, are prime examples. An overall brute materiality permeates the series, migrating into a spiritual malaise by way of narrative association between images and the titles. Some of the portrait-oriented images like “Fulton, Revisited” (2014) and “What Casper Might Look Like If He Grew Up to Be a Junkie in Tacoma” (2013) are suffused with an anxious determinism of crashed intentions. The first depicts a somewhat sullen, tattooed young man with a shaved head sitting in what looks like a mechanic’s shop; the latter projects Kurland’s negative alternative ending for her son Casper as depicted by a portrait of a young adult junkie sloppily gesticulating toward the lens. Particularly in this image, the artist makes an ontological leap from being a mere witness toward an investment in personal psychodrama and a mother’s foreboding of familial ruin.
In previous series, Kurland’s ability to maintain a distance from her thematic narratives allowed for those vignettes to seem candid, as if the photographer was not present and directing the action, immersing the viewer in an alternate rhetorical reality. “Sincere Auto Care” finds her usually disinterested gaze becoming more editorial while still maintaining a judgmental, critical detachment. Riding shotgun with Kurland, it can seem that the auto-fetish may have devolved into an empty pit in the perennial track of that vehicle called the American Dream.