No Boys Allowed
In 1997, photographer Justine Kurland hit the road, starting from New Haven where she received her MFA from Yale. On a roadtrip carried out in stops and starts over the course of several years, Kurland photographed adolescent girls on the fringes of society– on riverbanks, in train station bathrooms, and in dusty parking lots.
Perhaps I can chalk it up to my own deeply seated notions of “girlhood,” but I walked into this show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash expecting images of girls steeped in innocence, children before puberty, photographs that perhaps evoked the edge of change, that hinted at crossing the threshold of the new millennium which loomed as Kurland toured the country with her camera. But instead what I got was Girl Pictures, emphasis on the “girl,” as in “girl power” and “girl gang”: femininity, but with a snarl. These phrases might seem quaint to our ears in an era which has strengthened those sentiments by switching the word “girl” out for the word “pussy,” as in pussy power, pussy riot, my pussy grabs back. Things are a little different now, but in Kurland’s show we encounter the more innocent 90s, where smoking in the girls’ room still feels subversive.
Many of the artist’s photographs formally appear to be taking part in a dialogue with the history of art, but when one girl leans down to wash her feet in a stream, she doesn’t do so with reverence to images of the Last Supper, nor is the girl wringing out her hair on the banks of a river conscious of the way Degas labored over the same pose. Though Kurland names one of her pieces Bathers (1998), as Cézanne and Renoir have done before her, there is a significant difference between the consciousness with which she endows her subjects and the passivity belonging to their nineteenth century equivalents. Kurland’s girls are in pursuit of their own pleasure, the kind that can only come with the freedom of running away from home, fleeing the sometimes oppressive constructs of a respectable life. They do not languish on the shore, displaying the fullness of their figures for their admirers, as these patriarchal conventions of girls serving a purpose in the context of men’s pleasure are exactly what they are escaping. (And we can be sure of this in looking at the amusing, mirthful, yet vindictive series of prints in which boys make an appearance, only to be subject to the whim of the coven of girls into whose grasp they have stumbled. In one, the boy is being mercilessly prodded and in another, rendered sightless).
Though these girls are not done up in bows and taffeta, there is an innocence in their being staunchly, impractically separate from the world. Kurland’s genius is in how she plays with her audience, as at once we wearily regard the idealism of roving gangs of runaway girls, but at the same time cannot deny the raw appeal of this confident defiance. We feel that undeniable tickle, the twinge of desire to throw it all to the wind and hop the next train to who-knows-where.
Girl Pictures: 1997-2002
Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Until June 29