Decoy and Daydreamer


Two young female photographers: one never met a subculture she didn’t like, the other
never liked the subculture she was cast in, so she recast it. Both are having their first New York solo shows. Neither, at 29, is out of art school by much more than a year, yet both
already have ample bibliographies and both are prominently featured in the current issue of Artforum. You tell me: Are we turning British? Is it youth, girls, photography?

Photography now vies for attention with painting, video, and installation. The art-fashion boundary collapse is complete: Ads look like art, and many artists ape ads. Maybe it’s because the camera-more than an amenity, less than a necessity, and as much as it is taken for granted-is still something of a miracle to us; every picture, good or bad, is this finished, shiny phenomenon. Or maybe it’s because photography is easy; anyone can take a picture, though not necessarily an interesting one.

Then there are the so-called girl photographers with their girl subjects, and more specifically GPs from Yale (where I am a visiting critic six weeks a year). After the set-up minidramas of Dana Hoey came Anna Gaskell and her intensely colored forays into fairy tale, scale, and scary female adolescence (and who seemed to catapult from there to here to a museum exhibition; “Anna Gaskell: The Early Year”?). Next was Jenny Gage. Last season (in the attention-getting “Another Girl, Another Planet”), a new crop of recent graduates and grad students came to light. By this time even the Styles section of The New York Times got into the act.

Nevertheless, interesting artists emerged, including Katy Grannan, Malerie Marder, and one of our subjects, Justine Kurland. Kurland specializes in making Larry Clark?ish quasidocumentary, contemporary fairy photographs; picturesque Arcadian scenes peopled by adolescent girls, contemporary nymphs, and ruffians. Set in nature, on adventure, or merely lolling about, Kurland’s meadow-folk and outlaw-ettes evoke ambiguous, if fantastical, stories.

But really, Yale has nothing to do with it; schools are always moving in and out of zeitgeist alignment. Twelve blocks north of Kurland’s Callery Gallery debut, Leslie Tonkonow is showing the work of Nikki S. Lee, a graduate of the not-as-hot NYU photo department.

Where Kurland is as American as Thelma and Louise, and makes pictures as planned and as pastoral as a Bingham scene, Lee was born in Korea and only came to this country in 1994. Lee turns simulationism into assimilationism. Studying the facial expressions, hair, makeup, habits, habitats, secret passwords, and unspoken access codes of various subgroups (i.e., punks, swing dancers, senior citizens, drag queens, yuppies, lesbians, and Latinas) Lee dresses up, goes out, blends in, and has a friend document the process.

Like many young photographers, Lee and Kurland build on strategies in place since the early ’80s. Lee splices the dressing-up of Cindy Sherman with the snap-shotiness of Nan Goldin. But actually Lee is not a photographer at all. A latter-day Conceptualist by way of Performance, photography is only a tool to Lee. Her photos are nothing special, one looks pretty much like the next. They lack the drama, color, and intensity of a good Goldin, and though Lee is in every image (she loves center stage), she wasn’t forced there in the same ways that Sherman, Simmons, Goldin, Kruger, et al. were. Lee is a copycat, an egomaniac, and an aviator of fluid identity. She’s here because otherwise she wouldn’t be. Her pictures are simply documents of a strange and sometimes wonderful parrotry.

Lee is an outsider who brings you “inside.” My favorite mirrorings are the yuppie pictures. Here we see Lee masquerading among the happy, shiny, HIV-negative lords of the new mullah; everyone is vaguely good-looking in the way that models in a J. Crew catalogue are. See Nikki, proper and prosperous, hanging around the World Financial Center, working out at Equinox (their gym in the East 60s), shopping on Fifth Avenue, or in an office cubicle. This is a world where everything feels just so, and just so temporary.

What’s so creepy, and what makes this her best series, is not how Lee blends in, but how she stands out. It’s like she’s a glockenspiel in the middle of a John Tesh song; her smiling Korean face is utterly foreign in this land of the great white money hunters. Weirder still is Nikki in her “Young Japanese” series. Here (as depressing as this is) the American eye has difficulty telling the difference between these two ancient uneasy geopolitical neighbors.

Strengths? Lee is a ventriloquist of everyday life, a voice thrower, or an echo; her work a piece of psychological feedback that reminds us how terrifically chunky the melting pot is. Her weakness is to be found in the very blandness of her photographs. There isn’t enough undertow or tension to keep you engaged; too often you spot her, check out her “costume,” and move on. The part of you that wants to see more still wants to see more. Lee is a squirrelly artist; let’s hope she has it in her to take her strange project to the next level.

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.

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 Pictures also 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 Things depicts 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.