Fire Eaters by Justine Kurland
Five large photographs by Justine Kurland occupy a central wall and a corner space
in the lobby of the Weiden and Kennedy building near the PICA reception desk.
It is unfortunate that this work is displayed in such an easy to walk through
area, as the meditative atmosphere Kurland creates would be better suited to a
space less bustling.
It is easy to see the relationship between Kurland's mythic natural settings and
the work of her former Yale teacher, Gregory Crewdson.
Kurland walks a tightrope stretched between the mythical and the everyday, and
allows her images to be pulled sometimes completely toward myth, while maintaining
a slender relationship with the regular practices of "nature as spirituality."
At other times, the imagery is pulled too far back to the familiar Oregon outdoor
culture, and the larger implications must be sifted out of what is immediately
identifiable as a typical camping weekend in Oregon.
Round Circle (detail)
is a glorious desert landscape shot during a sunset (or sunrise?)
with dynamic, elongated shadows that reach back toward a circle of nude celebrants.
One's initial interest in the majestic landscape and the activity taking place
within the circle almost immediately fades to be replaced by a sense of menace.
The figures seem fragile and out of place in a harsh environment. What are they
doing there anyway? The activity seems less like a casual celebration and more
like a fertility ritual. The circle is comprised of only two men, and a number
of women. Round Circle pulls convincingly "normal" imagery into the
realm of the allegorical, of the archetypal. Are we viewing a morning meeting
at a nudist camp, or a pagan bacchanal or perhaps both at once?
One of the only fully clothed figures in Smoke Gathering
is an aged guitar player
who wears a hat that declares "Will Sing for Cookies." It is only "civilized"
culture that looks to nature for transcendence, often recklessly. Primitive people
do not consider themselves primitive, nature is their culture.
The culminating piece is entitled After Blake
and depicts a white-haired and dreadlocked
nude man standing on a rocky sea shore clutching a golden retriever close to him
and gazing out into a dazzlingly illuminated Pacific. In this piece the menace
of Round Circle
and the spiritual diffusion of Fire Eaters has resolved into a
profound optimism. Sacrifice, cataclysm, and pagan rituals are unnecessary. William
Blake of course, is the perfect avatar for reconciliation of the civilized mind
and the visionary experience, and the figure in Kurland's photograph could well
be derived from one of Blake's watercolors of God looking out over the void.
-Isaac Peterson is a Portland based artist/critic who recently returned to his home city after completing a MFA at the University of Cincinnati. He has published many times in Art Week.