In response to "Another Girl Another Planet," a 1999 exhibition featuring thirteen young, mostly female figurative photographers, critic Lucy Soutter coined the term "panty photography." For her, the show’s quasi-narrative and half-undressed imagery, especially Justine Kurland’s utopian, oft-reproduced Bathers (1998), represented a particular confluence of fine art, fashion and pornography that defined late-nineties photography.
For Kurland’s new show at Gorney Bravin + Lee, the skinny, magazine-ready teenage girls are gone, replaced by a cast of commune farmers whose maturity echoes Kurland’s own development. In the front gallery’s sixteen color images, these farmers, nude as Adam and Eve, till their vegetable gardens or enjoy a well-deserved rest in an edenic landscape. The size, composition and subject matter of these photos cultivate a bumper crop of art historical allusions, from classical nudes to nineteenth-century American painting (echoes of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins). Meanwhile, twelve smaller photographs in the rear gallery take an entirely different tack, posing the residents of each farm, fully clothed, for a formal group portrait. If the color tableaux in the front room recall the lost Eden of large-scale allegorical painting, these black and white, unmatted, straight-ahead photos document life after the Fall.
Kurland has always worn her heart on her sleeve, visualizing what she has often described as a girls-only utopia. But after separating the allegorical and documentary impulses from these earlier photos and stripping them of their teenage delinquency -- the sex, vandalism and violence -- she is left with a rather wholesome, unambiguous vision of nude hippies weeding kale. Nevertheless, what these new photos sacrifice in tension, they make up for in strength of conviction. Real utopia, Kurland seems to have discovered, is hard, unglamorous labor, not a dreamy ride in a van full of teenage girls.
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Flash Art no. 223 (Mar/Apr 2002)]