"Buying Authenticity"

In general–I could say almost as a matter of principle, but that would be pretentious–I find fashion an utter triviality. And I’m not speaking of high or couture fashion, which may have its merits (though I’m not expending the energy to find them), but the kind that goes with ‘self-stylization’, the kind that is marketed as if to suggest what you wear speaks to exactly who you are, as if throwing on a T-shirt in the morning was akin to taking up a cause. So imagine my–what was it? Disgust?–to open the New York Times Magazine this morning to find one of its ‘Style’ section photo essays dedicated to just this kind of ‘self-fashioning’. What is more–and this is my excuse for actually paying attention to this otherwise ignored section of the magazine–the photographer for the piece is Justine Kurland, whose photographs I’ve always found somewhat troublesome but could never articulate why. Now I believe I can.

“The Coats (and Dresses and Shirts) of Utopia”–I’m so, so sorry Sir Tom, but it was inevitable that some fashion staffer with a Comp. Lit. degree would not be able to resist his or her (equitable, no?) own cleverness–begins with a shot of your typical Willamsburg living room on any given Tuesday aftern… Wait, oh, actually the caption tells us that this is Portland, Maine, production central for “Rogues Gallery,” which is selling recycled T-shirts, apparently made in an atmosphere with “no superficiality” and “by kids who like to get dirty and listen to loud music and spill paint and dye shirts and make products.” I wasn’t aware that you had to travel to Maine to find this kind of deep authenticity, but such is the theme of the photo essay: New York is soft, effete, image obsessed and money driven. The designer behind Rogues Gallery escaped the City looking for a “heartier lifestyle.” Exactly. Lifestyle. (And when did it become popular to abbreviate New York with the letters “LA”?) What of Kurland’s photograph? White kids with tattoos, close-cropped heads (on both the men and women), facial hair (luckily only on the men) and the requisite worn looking denim, T-shirts and plaid (this is Maine after all). Could you find a more homogeneous attempt at being different? There’s not so much “making” going on, unless what is pictured is the process of “making” a lifestyle, which doesn’t seem to necessitate anything all too “hearty.” From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, we should call this what it is: the hipster’s life. And what a life(style) it is.

One quickly finds that each of Kurland’s pictures can be distilled down to a different “style” of life. The sewing circle that stands in for “Alabama Chanin,” another recycled clothing outfit, but this time one that likes to embroider and quilt as opposed to spill and dye, is steeped in the American vernacular of craft. That term, “craft,” we should remember, was resuscitated by critically minded feminist artists in the ’70s and ’80s as a way to highlight how ‘labor’ was not simply a neutral quantitative concept but was conceived, or rather valued, differently depending upon who was doing the work and what kind of work it was. In Chanin’s hands, craft becomes synonymous with indigenous identity, rather than labor, because, as the designer states, “if I wanted to get these shirts sewn, the best thing to do would be to come home and find people who knew how to quilt.” Home, of course, is Alabama, where Chanin now rents offices from her Aunt and has a view of the house her grandfather built. But is Alabama the only place where people know how to quilt? No. The best thing to do would be to “come home” because you can’t buy a better claim to authenticity if you want to sell some clothes. Labor can be found anywhere, but “Alabama” cannot (at least until Chanin strikes a deal with Target). Again, apologies to all of the born and bred New Yorkers; your identities are just too in flux, too variable and too, I guess, “fashionable,” whereas what one really needs is the solidity of the centered life that we could all enjoy if we just learned how to knit.

Remember, fashion of this ilk, lifestyle fashion, is about who you are; it’s about fashioning the self you always were but were too wrapped up with things like “aspiration” or “achievement” to take seriously. Let out your inner you, which, for Taavo Somer of “Freemans Sporting Club,” the uberhip downtown den of urban male self-loathing, is about being an “American guy.” For everybody else except Somer and the “guys” that circulate through his shop and join in on the Sporting Club’s little wilderness outings, this used to be called camping. (Kurland’s photo looks like it’s transplanted the guys from Rogues Gallery to the harsh wilderness of western New Jersey.) Only in New York could a bunch of men become so divorced form the idea of themselves as men that they would need to create a “lifestyle” out of getting a little fresh air. One has to admit here, however, that whoever wrote the copy for the essay’s captions redeems him or herself at Somer’s expense with this gem of a sequitur:

“You don’t want to be the helpless one in any scenario,” Somer says. “The clothing harkens back to the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, when men knew how to do things.” The [Sport Club’s] next outing will see the realization of a massive 10-gallon French coffee press operated by a giant tree-branch lever, the ultimate outdoor accessory for the urbane Freemans Boy Scout.

Sounds manly. Kurland must have sensed Somer and Co.’s deep sense of inadequacy when she conceded to capture one fellow in the process of throwing a football. What better marker of manliness? It’s just guys being guys; or rather, guys looking like what they think guys must look like when they imagine guys who “knew how to do things,” like, one presumes, throw a football.

The most genuine, and thus genuinely pathetic, statement on this lifestyle mess comes from Nina Garduno, who Kruland photographs in full new-age, green hippie splendor on a rocky California beach, apparently with acolytes in tow. Garduno, we learn, is conflicted:

“I’m attracted to an Hermès bracelet, which I hate myself for, and I’m attracted to the commune.” She says she “fought” not buying the bracelet but ultimately did succumb, though it has since been lost.

Good thing that. Because as we know, Hermès is the pinnacle of the inauthentic. I wonder, though, why can’t people hate themselves for being attracted to the commune? But we know the loathing never runs in that direction. As penance, Garduno began “Freecity,” whose outlet, “the freecitysupershop, located in a Malibu strip mall between a nail salon and a dry cleaner’s, is both Garduno’s creative outlet and the retail outlet for the screen-printed clothes, hand-painted terra-cotta bells and customized bicycles created in the nearby freecity workshop.” Can a thrift store be a lifestyle? Apparently so. And even though Garduno admits that she knows her wares are being bought “as fashion”–which seems as nonsensical as going out to by a pair of pants “as clothing”–she understands, deeply as it were, that when people buy her clothes, “what they’re really buying”–and no, I’m not making this up–“is authenticity.”

Right.

Now, to get to what I find troublesome with Kurland’s photography in general: It has been with the interest of being fair that I have not looked too critically upon these particular photographs, given that they belong more properly to that shadow world of PR and marketing in which magazines play a central role. But, nevertheless, it is the ease with which Kurland’s photography lends itself to this particular assignment, which we might as well call “the fashioning of authenticity” (a phrase whose contradictions should come off with all of the subtlety of an ambulance siren), that strikes me as at once problematic and illuminating; for Kurland’s photography appears deeply invested in her medium’s ability to evoke, if not “to conjure,” scenes and sensibilities–or more simply, places and people, that overcome the fact of their own mediation.

This was the central conceit of “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” a photography show which Kurland and Dan Torop curated at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in 2006, and it ran through Kurland’s subsequent solo exhibition, “Of Woman Born,” from earlier this year. The photographs Kurland showed there pictured arrays of naked and pregnant women and their children seemingly very much at home in forests, on beaches and mountain tops, by gushing rivers, and so forth. The mythology of the “earth mother” was nearly too heavy for the photographs to bear, and the fiction so constructed reeked of a sentimentalism that always seems to rear its head when real conflict in the world at large is at hand. (Lisa Yuskavage took this turn recently with similar pictures of feminine and maternal “care”; Robert Longo has take a detour here with his recent large-scale and lush graphite renderings of sleeping children.)

Kurland is a photographer of exceptional talent, but her choices of subject, her intellectual interests, inevitably come off as Diane Arbus-lite. Arbus captured people’s alternative lifestyles as they were lived, “authentically” as it were. Kurland’s pictures reproduce only the desire for such authenticity, and they do so without acknowledging the logical impossibility of “representing” it as such. That “desire,” as we should be well aware, lies at the root of the fashioning of authenticity, which is apparently what we’re all trying to buy.

7 Comments

  • Chris H.

    Spot on. Perfectly articulates my feelings during a visit to Deer Isle, Maine, last summer. Argument could be applied to “community” in addition to the “authentic.”

  • Catherine Spaeth

    I always viewed her work as dystopian landscape narratives using feminist social desires as a hook, and feeling the weight of impossibilty. In “Of Woman Born” the myth of maternal nature went on a picnic and boasted of the pictorial conventions at hand. It mattered to the project that the women fully enjoyed participating in and constructing the myth, and that their own pregnant and mothering bodies provided the sentiment.

    We’ve re-entered Watteau’s world of artifice, locating power and revelry in understanding all conventions as superficial. Ambivalence has been sapped of any tension it might have, contradiction is long past, and irony has lost its ba da bing. There is no paralysis before or withdrawal from “the Spectacle,” but full and knowing participation, so that even anarchy is no longer possible, just one more imagined community among others.

    Interesting.

  • Jonathan T. D. Neil

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that ‘community’ could equally stand in place here of ‘authenticity’; I’d rather seen the former as a subset of the latter. It’s funny too: I was recently having a conversation with a fellow who has created quite a living out of the street art, urban lifestyle image. But when he first described what he was interested in as ‘community’, I was genuinely confused. I wondered if this meant that his operations underwrote ‘community’ programs–after school reading rooms, historic preservation, small business owner organizing, etc.; the standard fare of any ‘community’ development initiative–until I realized that he was simply talking about a place where people of a specific sensibility (call it alternative, street, or whatever; I wouldn’t deign to label it) could hang out and feel ‘at home’. Strange how this ‘scene’ has become synonymous with ‘community’ too. I don’t think it’s necessarily incorrect. It’s just an interesting tweaking of the term and one which requires a bit more attention.

    As for Kurland’s photographs, I would be very hesitant to agree that what it being put on display is some sort of foregrounding of pictorial or symbolic conventions. Catherine, your comment about how it was important to Kurland’s project that the women enjoyed “participating in and constructing the myth” I think conflates to very different, perhaps opposed, activities. I would agree that they participate in the myth of the ‘earth mother’ myth, and enjoy it, but this is not the same thing as them actively ‘constructing’ it; at least I don’t see it that way. To construct it would require the participants deep understand of its mechanisms, its structures, and this requires some sort of critical distance to come into play. By participating, these women ‘live’ the myth itself, which then stands as a form of its revitalization and therefore, a sign of its continued (or renewed) legitimacy–i.e. it’s authenticity. That Kurland’s is a photographic project only verifies this maneuver in my book. It states: “This happens.” “These are real women living some real connection as much to the earth as to their children and their own bodies.” I recognize that there is artifice involved here, but I think Kurland’s photographs attempt to overcome it, rather than point it out. And I rather disagree that all convention is “superficial.” Indeed, I think convention is in many ways deeply, deeply structural. Simply recognizing something as “conventional” does not write it off as mere “historicism” or as social or political “construction,” und so weiter (think Chomsky’s deep grammar; or not getting epistemological entities confused with ontological ones). It’s a matter, I think, not only of recognizing which conventions are superficial and which are not, but also of noticing when someone is playing convention for its effects–i.e. how convention is being used and to what ends. In Kurland’s case, I think that sentimentality and the revitalization of the ‘earth mother’ or some new-age Gaia mythology is the desired end. Kurland is invested in this kind of spiritualism, but without any critical remainder.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    Thanks, Jonathan. I do think that there are many artists who can only point to conventions as superficial or played out and this is a weak reading of our world. I’m with Michael Fried on this one, who condemned the literalism that he saw in the art world as a bad reading of how convention operates, and favored the deployment of convention as syntax in Anthony Caro’s early work, also Rosalind Krauss’ Terminal iron Works, where she describes the conventions of facingness in David Smith’s sculpture. These were strong art historical accounts of the importance of convention in art and were written quite some time ago.

    As for Kurland, to drive across country and round up pregnant women in health food stores for a romp in the woods, after her series of teenage girls camping out in abandoned cars under bridges, is to create a body of work that is very interested in constructing an imagined gendered space that does not exist in daily life. The dystopian landscape narrative is a widely visible genre that Kurland is knowingly participating in, from Watteau’s isle of Cythera we get to Henry Darger, Anthony Goicolea, even Marcel Dzama. Inside of these conventions of artifice, that the sentiments of those who pose for her are very likely caught up in the realness of their day even as they perfom it, does not enter a space of ambivalence, contradiction, or irony. This is what was visible in the show at Mitchell Inness and Nash, and there is something conceptual about what photography is and does. But as you noticed, it is also being deployed to market “authenticity.” This supports your claims for her work, which I agree with and extend.

  • Jonathan T. D. Neil

    I guess I’m confused by two things: One would be the reading of “On Woman Born” as dystopic; the other would be including Watteau’s Cythera within this genre, which sounds more like Baudelaire’s reversal of the Cythera (Utopian) myth than Watteau’s depiction of it.

    And don’t you think Fried would sideline Kurland’s work for its ‘too-be-seenness’ (which he distinguishes from theatricality but does not yet equate with absorption)?

    (And thanks for reminding me about Krauss on David Smith; it’s funny, when I studied with her, her work on Smith rarely came up, especially in her seminar on the medium, which of course is where she did most of her thinking about artistic conventions. She always used to accuse Fried of a latent Heideggarian streak, which must have been what she had to work through to get to her Merleu-Pontian phenomenology.) Good stuff.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    If it is utopian, it can only be as fantasy as no one ever really gets to visit utopia, and it has quite fallen out of fashion to consider it.

    The Watteau reference is really more about the ads – the dystopian narrative has fallen into the courtly decadence of a vanishing social power, something like that, it may not quite work but I felt the desire for some other origin than Darger.

    Fried’s language is too specific to his own scholarship and to what he sees in Jeff Wall to migrate so easily. That would be to treat his descriptive language as “present to hand.” So, what I do see in Kurland is a tension between representation and presentation, that’s very interesting and the first thing that Fried wants to say about “to-be-seenness.” But he is also interested in the digital distortions that depict primordial (un-photographic) vision, and the distinction between present to hand and ready to hand as dependent upon an exclusion of the viewer. I think that Kurland is asking too much for the viewer’s participation, which is how she winds up pushing product.

    You were very lucky to study with Krauss. Fried’s Wall is certainly drenched in Heidegger. I’m enjoying this conversation – everything you noticed is getting pretty rich.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    I posted something pretty quirky on desire and attitude that is really a follow-uo to this thread,, although specific to what I see in “Unmonumental.” Thanks for the inspiration!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.