The concept is simple, audacious, scathing, mean, unfair, brilliant: an update of Valerie Solanas’ notorious SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto, the 1967 underground classic of radical feminist rage, this time reimagined as a personal protest against male cultural hegemony in the art world of photography—indeed as an evisceration of it.
Justine Kurland plays the vengeful goddess of creative destruction in this action, and she performs the role with ferocious gusto. Instead of Solanas’ torrent of words, the photographer conjures whirlwinds of images that are intended to deliver a similar message. Choosing books of photographs by men from her private library, she has wielded her X-Acto knife and scissors on the contents, slicing up pages and recombining the severed pieces into collages that reflect her rejection of images that for too long have colonized her brain and the art world. As an homage to Solanis, she has titled her exorcism SCUMB (Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books).
I expect Kurland’s women friends and representatives greeted her idea with hoots of laughter, maybe even applause. (I laughed, too, when I read the press release, although more nervously.) Rehabilitating the name of the sexually abused but mentally unbalanced Solanas, best-known as the attempted assassin of Andy Warhol, is daring enough. To then go about shredding dozens of photography books—titles that presumably Kurland once treasured, including Paris by Night and The Americans, as well as books by former teachers and mentors—is riskier still. Not everyone is likely to be flattered having years or a lifetime of work physically ripped apart and in theory disparaged.
As a photographer, Kurland has been trained to discover pictures in the world, not to create them at the table, so she is venturing outside her comfort zone. Photo-collage belongs to that repertoire of techniques—solarization; negative-positive reversal; aerial, infrared, and pinhole photography; sepia printing; and the “fish-eye” lens—that can reliably produce a surrealistic effect. It’s hard to make a bad photo-collage or a great one.
To make her task harder, she has followed a strict set of parameters. The physical book itself provides all of the content. No Photoshop, no darkroom manipulation, no extraneous material. The size of the cover determines the size of the collage, and the colored inside papers of the original serve as background. The vertical strip of the binding being incorporated into the rectangular format of the finished work, hung either vertically or horizontally, she is often confined to making diptychs. In an early iteration of the exhibition checklist, she included the names of the photographers. She later decided to delete them but to keep the title of the book that has been re-authored. The show offers no wall text that would explain Kurland’s thoughts about any of these photographers so inspecting the walls becomes a guessing game about why a particular image or style has incurred her wrath.
Why Kurland has chosen some books and ignored others is also not clear. (In an email response to my question, she wrote: “I cut books from my personal library; books introduced through my education, through publishers or exhibitions; books that exerted an influence and helped shape my language.”) She seems to have methodically surveyed her bookshelves, A to W, and decided to spare no White males—except Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins so far. (“I will get to them,” she reassures me, “but they feel relatively benign so it’s not that urgent.”)
The press release provides further explanation for her purge. “Historical figures who have become the foundation of the history of photography, and their contemporary male heirs by primogeniture, have their pictures chopped up and reauthored by Kurland. The nature of collage—heterogeneous, pulled apart, shape shifting, disrupted, cyborg, fantasy—has long made it a feminist strategy in life and in art. Kurland’s is a restorative and loving ritual. Each collage is a reclamation of history; a dismemberment of the patriarchy; a gender inversion of the usual terms of possession; and a modest attempt at offsetting a life of income disparity.”
That’s a heavy load for a set of modest photo-collages to carry on their shoulders, and Kurland frequently stumbles. Some photographers invite a dismantling and a settling of scores. As soon as I learned of the project, I wondered if Lee Friedlander’s Nudes and Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful would be in her sights and offer target rich environments. Sure enough, they do.
Other photographers pose problems if you are delivering a feminist critique and want to, say, deconstruct the male gaze. She opens the show with three books by Robert Adams: White Churches of the Plains, From the Missouri West, To Call It Home Photographs of the American West. None of her slashing revisions of his unassertive work—into fractured trees and buildings, decapitated steeples, a patch of isolated sandbanks, an amusement park ride—convey a spirit of anger or satire or fun, or much spirit at all. It’s as if her heart weren’t fully engaged in her demolition job. Adams has to be exterminated only because of what he represents—an honored place in her artistic upbringing—and not for anything egregious he has said or done or photographed that demeaned women. Similarly, her tearing apart of books by Atget, Karl Blossfeldt, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, John Gossage, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, William Klein, Martin Parr, Michael Schmidt, Alec Soth, and many others qualify as attacks on innocents whose only crime was to be White and male. What’s more, the crime scenes she has left for us to sift for clues aren’t that revealing about the victims.
Even when her designs are ingenious, as they often are, it’s not always clear what we are meant to conclude from them. Her isolation of pictorial elements in Larry Sultan’s Katherine Avenue bring out buried patterns in the three-book collection I hadn’t noticed before: the many shades of green in he decor of his parents’ home, and the pervasive drapes and valences. Sultan’s mother is here rendered headless while his father, seated on the bed, is turned into a blank silhouette, an apt commentary on his function in the photographer’s life. Elegant though the jumbled new perspective is, its insights into suburban life in America, or the role of women and men, are no more perceptive than the ones encoded—with more bite—in Sultan’s original photographs.
Kurland is best when distilling a book into a few telling images. Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces is little more than plates of unappetizing road food and toilets, a hilariously crude but apt summary. Alfred Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe consists of nothing but an overgrown jungle of bent wrists and hands and fingers intertwined. The black end papers of Brassaï’s Paris by Night turn out to be a perfect setting for Kurland’s reinterpretation of the city as a monster with a gaping, toothy smile and serpentine appendages, similar to the female beast in the Alien series. It was cruel of Kurland to reduce Emmet Gowin’s Aperture monograph on family life in rural Virginia to some bare female breasts and arms, a patch of curled hair, and a veined leaf. But it feels like an honest response to the book, to the nude pictures of Gowin’s wife Edith that have stayed in Kurland’s over many years and are the reason the book has been in her library.
There is an elegiac quality to these collages, as if she were saying goodbye to objects she once dearly loved and that now—due to her political-social convictions—can no longer live with. Most of us do not easily get rid of books, at least not ones that have been in our possession for years, and it appears that Kurland (b. 1969) is no different.
The emotional confusion in the work emerges most strongly in her revisions of Friedlander and Winogrand, two looming male figures from her early schooling in photography at SVA and Yale. Friedlander’s Nudes was shocking when published in 1991 because his photographs of women’s bodies were so graphically real, with far more body hair than most of us were used to comfortably looking at. Inspired by the artist Jay DeFeo’s circular forms, Kurland has made a swirling storm of these bodies, a hurricane of naked women’s breasts, arms, and legs, in the dark eye of which (hard to see) are tiny crotches of pubic hair. Ostensibly mocking Friedlander’s intrusive stare, her version is actually more sanitized and decorative, easier to accept as a work of art than his sweaty and clinical orgy of photographic scrutiny. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her x-rated baroque fantasy on the walls of the Whitney Biennial.
Her double-sided take on Women is Beautiful is even more complicated, the tweezers pieces put together like a delicate watch, with intricate negative and positive spaces, cut-out figures, patterning of dresses and blouses, and a white ghostly silhouette of a woman in the center. As much as Kurland wishes to be brutal to these men and their reportedly sexist photographs, her adherence to the craft of making things well won’t allow her to be. Her remodeled Winogrand is the masterpiece of the show.
What’s most puzzling about Kurland’s attitude in the SCUMB project is that she wants us to take Valerie Solanas seriously, something I’m not sure her gallery does. The SCUM manifesto was published in 1967, the year of the “Summer of Love” and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. The press release captures the loopy utopian mood (and dated Austin Powers slang) of the time by quoting the book’s opening lines: “SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men)…will eliminate through sabotage all aspects of society not relevant to women (everything), bring about a complete female take-over, eliminate the male sex and begin to create a swinging, groovy, out-of-sight female world.”
Scholars debate whether Solanas’ text should be read as feminist or anarchist, and whether it is a visionary assault on patriarchy or a parody of Freud. So far as I know, she never cut up any men. In 1968 she used a handgun in shooting Warhol three times, missing twice. She also would have killed his lawyer Fred Hughes, too, had her gun not jammed. The only people who cut up anyone because of Solanas were the surgeons who saved Warhol’s life. Richard Avedon’s photograph of the Pop artist’s stitched up abdomen commemorates their diligent handiwork. Because the court diagnosed her to be a paranoid schizophrenic, Solanas received only a 3 year-sentence for attempted murder.
Kurland’s essay in the zine for the show could be read as an attempt to imitate the unhinged logic of Solanas. In it Kurland expresses sympathy for wives who kill their abusive husbands because it “challenges the notion that women are only ever the recipients of violence.” Along the way, she libels the sculptor Carl Andre (“probably” murdered his wife “although not convicted”) and the photographer Thomas Roma (an “unindicted” serial rapist) and claims that Warhol’s art is “compelling because it’s the result of a damaged psyche.”
The ambition of SCUMB—to remake the history of photography as her own and to liberate it in the name of all women—is an extension of Kurland’s desire to live in a matriarchal paradise, a wish expressed in her previous series Girl Pictures (1997–2002), and Mama Babies (2004–07). Her dismemberment of photography books by men is purely a symbolic act and isn’t harming anyone: she isn’t destroying actual photographs, only reproductions of them.
By ingesting their cannibalized parts, however, she may be granting men more power than they already possess. In Egyptian myth, after Osiris was cut into pieces by his wicked brother Set, it was Isis, wife of Osiris, who gathered up the severed parts of the body so that he could be returned to life. SCUMB has in a sense placed a higher value on the work of male photographers than on her own. The show has sold out. Is that because of her or them? Or because in the art economy, unique works are valued more highly than editioned ones? Photo-collage is the perfect vehicle for the conversion of the multiple into the one-of-a kind.
Kurland must have calculated that the personal costs of this work could be high and has boldly proceeded anyway. SCUMB threatens to damage, if not rupture completely, friendships with other photographers that Kurland has maintained for years. Books by three of Kurland’s teachers—Tod Papageorge, Joel Sternfeld, and Gregory Crewdson—have been vivisected. Which raises a slew of questions: If any of them feel insulted by what she has done to their photographs, are they being too sensitive? Can’t they take a joke? (To redirect a charge often leveled at feminists.) Or are they right to feel wounded because they finally understand how she has always felt about them as artists but didn’t dare admit it to their faces?
The press release states that before collectors could buy the collages, Kurland offered to sell them to the original photographers. “None of the men have taken her up on her offer.” The tone of this statement is odd. Are we supposed to be surprised—or indignant—that these humorless men have so far spurned her proposal? I’m not sure why anyone would be expected to buy back his own work for hundreds of dollars after it has been savaged by someone who has singled you out for attack only because of your gender and skin color.
The general motives behind the show are more invigorating than the particular expressions of it. It is thrilling to see an artist make a radical break with her past, as Kurland her here. She’s like a woman who feels she can no longer stand to be in a marriage and so instead of selling the house burns it to the ground.
What she has accomplished for herself by this gesture, though, is not as certain. It would be instructive to know what traits of each photographer Kurland found most objectionable—should no male be allowed to photograph a nude woman?—and how she intends to counteract their influence on her habits of seeing and working. As most art photography books in history have been—and may continue to be—authored by men, this could well be an ongoing and a lifelong project.