American photographers have had a long romance with the road. Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore, to name a few, have spent extended periods of time in their cars, roving the country with their cameras, and Justine Kurland has followed suit. She has been taking road trips since she was a child, tagging along with her mother to sell handmade clothes at Renaissance fairs around the country.
Kurland graduated from Yale with an MFA in 1998. Since her inclusion in the show “Another Girl, Another Planet,” at New York’s Lawrence Rubin-Greenberg Van Doren gallery, in 1999, she has spent most of every year on the road, even after the birth of her son, Casper, in 2004. The road trip is integral to her photographic practice, but an uneasy mood infiltrates the absorbing and gorgeous photographs in “Sincere Auto Care” (2011-14), her most recent series.
Cars and car culture are the explicit subjects of these pictures, and in part the work is a study of masculinity. In Murdered Out (2013)—titled after a phrase used for cars that are entirely black—a man’s hand, holding a cigarette, enters the frame from the corner to rest on a rusted hood. The picture is deceptively simple and inexplicably lovely, its appeal having to do with its William Eggleston-like composition, the angle of the arm and the shadow it casts on the hood. Both men and cars are often fragmented in Kurland’s photographs—a limb or a torso standing in for a person, an engine or a stack of tires suggesting a car—as if she’s deconstructing the masculine American dream of the open road.
Spray Fire Custom (2013) is a closely cropped shot of the flaming orange skulls painted on a black car door. The photograph highlights the artistry of the custom paint job, but it also demonstrates the anxiety that runs through the series, an anxiety often fueled by maternal concern. What Casper Might Look Like If He Grew Up to Be a Junkie in Tacoma (2013), for instance, depicts a disheveled young man squinting into the sun. Hung nearby was a sequence of photographs showing Kurland’s son in a car seat, in the front passenger side of a car (76 Station, 2012); the windshield of a different car that’s been crushed in on the passenger side (Death Seat, 2012); her son’s small hand, dirty and holding a tooth (Baby Tooth, 2011); and the front end of a totaled
car (Crash, 2013). In reality, the images are unrelated, but the fears they conjure are palpable.
Kurland’s images play on our assumptions about photography—that a photograph is based in fact, even if its meaning is slippery and open to interpretation. Her pictures are also rooted in a deeply photographic way of looking, as evidenced by the geometries and planes of color she captures in these simple but multivalent compositions.