The Big Picture

Assessing the New Scale Model

Thinking (relatively) small: Justine Kurland's Clothes Make the Man, Desert Scene (Sonora Desert, AZ) (2001)
Photo Courtesy of Gorney Bravin + Lee, New York
Thinking (relatively) small: Justine Kurland's Clothes Make the Man, Desert Scene (Sonora Desert, AZ) (2001)

It's hardly a matter of small is beautiful. There are just as many bad little pictures as there are mammoth monsters. But there's something to be said for restraint. Bill Jacobson's recent color photos—New York streetscapes dissolving into impressionist reveries—measured a sensible 30 by 36 inches, large enough to engross but not overwhelm the viewer. The pictures in Justine Kurland's new show (at Gorney Bravin + Lee, 534 West 26th Street, through April 14) are just as neatly contained at 30 by 40 inches, and their relatively compact size is itself a wonder. Kurland photographs young girls—imaginary runaways who've lit out for a quasi-Edenic territory all their own—in wide-open landscapes, from broad green lawns and misty fields to seaside cliffs and desert wilderness. Because each of her narratives is grounded in a location that evokes flight and freedom, Kurland's scope is expansive. She often appears to be spying on her subjects from a safe distance, and in some pictures, we can see for miles beyond the scattered figures in the foreground. The temptation to go very big with these photos must have been hard to resist, but Kurland's decision to scale them down is smart. She allows viewers ample space to enter her world, drawing us in with suggestive, if enigmatic, detail while keeping us at the same respectful remove she herself maintains. She isn't mounting a spectacle, she's spinning a fragile, intimate tale—one that requires the sort of quietly observant participation you can't engage in from across the room. If Gursky makes us stand back and gape, Kurland invites us to come closer and, like her feisty girls, escape.

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