Justine Kurland’s latest exhibition “SCUMB Manifesto” found her swerving for the first time from photography to a more plastic medium and a loosely conceptual framework, yet with her usual mode of expression still in mind. Kurland has taken up collage, but with a provocative and very specific set of raw materials: The artist culled her extensive photo-book library of its roughly 150 volumes by white men and went at them with an X-Acto. SCUMB (Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books) is, obviously, a tribute to Valerie Solanas’s hilarious, violent, and critically perspicacious SCUM Manifesto (1967). As a kind of coup de grâce, when showtime rolled around Kurland offered to sell each of the sixty-five artworks she’d completed to the man whose imagery she’d reconfigured. Not a single one took her up on the offer.
If Kurland had scripted that response herself, it could not have been more perfect. A geek-macho culture has pervaded photography throughout what one might call its classical postwar form—that is, the cargo-vest, it’s-an-art, women-are-beautiful, put-us-in-MoMA, tenure-us-at-Yale form, with a champagne coupe of fashion sleaze on the side. Sure, the executor of, say, Roman Vishniac’s estate may have been befuddled to receive Kurland’s unexpected sales pitch. But half the artists are living, and many of them are, I would hazard, of Kurland’s acquaintance. Come on, gentlemen. I know money is tight these days, but we all nearly just died in a pandemic. Can’t you take a joke?
The collages make an impressive addition to Kurland’s already exceptional oeuvre, with its explorations of girl- and womanhood, the American landscape, marginal characters, and dilapidated fantasies of freedom. The new works are skillful, versatile, and refreshingly analog—yes to the cut-and-paste of Jess or Linder, no to the aesthetics of Photoshop (in keeping with the artist’s continuing dedication to film). The splayed, stripped-off covers from the mostly hardbound volumes—each one comprising the tome’s full front, spine, and back—serve as grounds for the books’ diced-up contents. The results show off a vibrant array of logics and styles. Paris by Night, 2020, for example, turns an image of a sinuous cobblestoned gutter on its side, making it the central arch of an elegant, mysterious composition that evokes a machinic form of Surrealism. Think of England, 2021, with its synthetic colors, canned goods, and bisected Pegasus, has a Pop feel, pace Richard Hamilton. Hustlers, 2019, and Hustlers (Kate’s Copy), 2021—made from Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s portraits of sex workers—the subjects absent from their sidewalks and motel rooms, are intricate yet ghostly memento mori.
Despite the rigorous formalism on display, the exhibition does feature many moments of satire and critique. Take the ironically titled Exhibit A, 2020, which reconstitutes Guy Bourdin’s work as a long splay of women’s body parts, mostly legs, with a trained seal begging for a fish in the upper-right corner. The Man, the Image, & the World, 2020, riffs on the objectivist impulse, classifying clipped limbs, faces, and so on into columns bracketing a tondo of headless, suit-clad men who orbit a cadre of rifles. In Nudes, 2021, a welter of dissected female bodies spell out the artist’s first name, with a nipple dotting the I. Twilight, 2021, rooted in a familiar suburban gothic, studs a thin landscape of clunky trees and lampposts with taxidermied fauna, while moody empty interiors lurk below in the universal psychic basement. Meanwhile, at center, a pregnant woman with a distended belly is just missed by the rays of an anxious moon.
In the end, “SCUMB Manifesto” made an incisive point about art history and history in general. The virtuous gallerygoer, the conscientious citizen, is trained to see what’s in front of them in light of the past. But for an exhibition that, Solanas style, cuts an antique, patriarchal history down to size, how relevant should yesterday be? Kurland’s staging of this conundrum, dismissing the male figures behind her images while consistently calling them to account, makes yet another incisive point: The past can’t just vanish with a finger snap, but rather must be dealt with in a complex case-by-case way—preferably a gleeful one, and maybe involving a razor.