The complex landscape of Americana, in all of its grungy glory, has been documented many times, each time with a unique perspective and very often with a driving ethical or social message somewhere just below the surface. But in Sincere Auto Care, photographer Justine Kurland seeks to neutralize the otherwise political or cultural connotations of these semiotics. Instead, she presents the subjects as they are: beautiful but dry, deep but all surface, and, as the title suggests, truly sincere.
Very often in contemporary photography, the action of photographing certain subcultures (most specifically, working class and blue-collar lifestyles) in the American terrain becomes an exercise in romanticizing and/or mocking or fetishizing the elements that comprise that milieu. It is a thread carried down from the 1970s, when this practice became a popular way of evoking a certain narrative. The hard-working people whose lives revolve around their cars and the landscape that they inhabit in this day and age could easily be rendered in the same format – reduced to the small signs used to contrast against the lives of those that pass through the halls of contemporary art galleries in Chelsea, New York City, while such an audience passively consumes them as fascinating tidbits. Kurland avoids this representational approach, and instead approaches the documentary procedure in a way that is both realistic and poetic, elevating her subjects to the realm of myth and heroism.
The photographic prints are deceptively three-dimensional. Hung in the gallery on frames that jut out sharply from the walls, the sheer vibrancy and depth of the photographic prints in Sincere Auto Care is enough to convince the viewer that they could fall right through the frame and into the scene depicted. But beyond the beauty of the objects themselves, there is a sensitivity that becomes apparent in the progression of the show. Kurland’s decisions on when to take the photographs she takes are decisions that determine her subjects as worthy of the photograph; there is a sense of focus, calm and fulfillment highly present in each subject, including the few small children that serve as contextual framing devices for the auto workers in the images, as well as those that suggest urban nature and death. In this way, the themes and visuality of Sincere Auto Work are reminiscent of religious art.
It is notable that Kurland does not shy away from modern signals. The viewer is cued in on the contemporary status of the shots by certain items of clothing, certain objects, and buildings visible in the frame. But despite this, there is still an air of nostalgia brought on by a style that we have seen in the past, from Walker Evans to Robert Frank, and by the presence of classic car models. So too, a sense of preciousness pervades, conjured by the sheer grandeur of the images. The qualities that Kurland merges together elevates the general perspective of auto-workers into powerful, statuesque figures both in history and in the present day.
Sincere Auto Care is on view at Mitchell-Innes and Nash from now until October 11th, 2014.
Justine Kurland, Sparrow Road Kill (2014) via Mitchell-Innes and Nash
— E. Heinz
Sincere Auto Care [Mitchell-Innes and Nash]