Decoy and Daydreamer

As Lee's work verges on sociology, and is an example of the sympathetic visitor going native, Justine Kurland's photographs tend toward painting. She is a mix of many photographers, including Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Sally Mann, Julia Margaret Cameron, or occasionally (as when she dabbles in the macabre) her teacher Gregory Crewdson; and though she comes out of Sherman's film-still aesthetic, Kurland's "stills" are writ large. Kurland has more in common with history painting, Romanticism, Maxfield Parrish, the fairy pictures of Richard Daad, or the painted pixies of Rita Ackerman.

A stalker of wild things, her scenes of young girls at play, lost, or idling in picturesque, green landscapes are her strongest works. Here you get a sense of overflowing beauty; epic, if untold stories of camaraderie; and a world nearly devoid of men.

In this impressive but uneven exhibition (ickily mistitled "Secret World of Girls"), three of the pictures recall the work of Sharon Lockhart, and show Kurland in a kind of after-school special mode. Ecstasy, featuring a girl in her underpants balancing on a rock; Pink Tree, an image of a girl climbing a tree along the West Side Highway; and Respite Under a Bridge,in which two girls take five, are all bland. And Kung-Fu Fighting,which features a couple of white chicks goofing around while a buddy blows a bubble, is only a little better.

Justine Kurland, Puppy Love, 1999 (detail): Blair Witch by way of Arcadia
photo: Robin Holland
Justine Kurland, Puppy Love, 1999 (detail): Blair Witch by way of Arcadia

Details

Justine Kurland
Patrick Callery
433 West 14th Street
Through October 23

Nikki S. Lee
Leslie Tonkonow
601 West 28th Street
Through October 16

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After this, things pick up. Kurland has left the large tableau behind in favor of something closer to documentary. She has moved closer to her elusive subject, literally. The camera is now positioned in the medium-to-close-up range. This offsets some of her dreamy effects and expansive all-overness. It's risky, but when it works it's like observing birds close in.

Two beautifully serene pictures echo one another. In Poison Ivy, one girl picks nits off another, in some weird, primate, alpha female behavior (though the picture is marred by a leech on one of the girl's legs, and feels a little contrived). Painting Picturesalso features two girls, one tracing patterns on the other's naked back. They sit on a graffiti-covered rock. But here, instead of a beer party, we get another kind of normalcy.

Puppy Love(as it is punningly titled) depicts a Blair Witch?y encampment of pubescent girls hanging around, doing laundry, or clutching a puppy. It's a pajama party by way ofLord of the Flies. Only, again, nothing awful is taking place. The picture suffers from a touch of narrative convention, but her trusty color gets her through. And Wild Thingsdepicts a Diana-being-surprised-by-hunters scenario, in which the hunters are played by a couple of beer-drinking rednecks, while the Dianas are, of course, five gosling girls. It's clichéd but it shows Kurland, who is warming up, trying to expand from the pastoral into something ardently her own.

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