Justine Kurland, The Oregonian
Justine Kurland at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR
Originally published in The Oregonian

By now, the American West should be a bankrupt symbol for freedom. Long traditions of landscape painting and photography have ensured that the majesty and sprawl of its wide-open landscapes are all too readily synonymous with utopian possibility. It's no small feat, then, that Justine Kurland's recent body of photographs presents these mythic spaces in a new light, reclaiming the breathtaking awe that the territory would inspire if we weren't so accustomed to clichéd picture-postcard versions of it. 

The images in "This Train Is Bound for Glory," many of which debuted in October at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York, document the West's sublime vistas, but use trains -- and the subculture of hobos and "hoppers" who illegally ride them -- to ground these settings in the personal. In fact, Kurland's practice directly mirrors the wanderlust of her subjects: These photographs are the product of months spent on the road with her young son, Casper, living in a van and tracking the commercial rail system. 

In many ways, Casper -- named for the 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich -- is at the heart of this work. Not only did his boyish obsession with trains help inspire the project, but Kurland frequently includes him in the frame as a didactic presence, urging us to see these spaces with the utterly unspoiled, never-seen-anything-like-it gaze of a child. Clearly, it's an infectious perspective, because Kurland's viewfinder frames the land in spectacularly estranging ways. The titles tell us these scenes transpired in close-to-home places -- the Columbia River Gorge, Northern California -- but her portrayals are so otherworldly and beautiful that you can't help but second-guess. 

Kurland's previous work often employed actors and models to activate the idyllic potential in the natural settings she photographs; a recent body of work, for instance, featured groups of nude mothers and their children communing in Edenic isolation. The images in "This Train" eschew elaborate staging, but many are so layered with art historical and literary allusion that there's no mistaking them for strict documentary 

The forking train track in "Keddie Wye, Keddie," 2007, nestled in mountainous forest and presided over by a ghostly fogbank, conjures Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and the poem's topography-as-philosophy conceit. 

In "Cuervo Astride Mama Burro, Now Dead, Doyle," 2007, a shirtless man with a leathery tan and a sheathed knife tucked into his belt steers a procession of pack burros along a track, as a wolf trails the team in the background. The combination of Cuervo's heroism and delusion evokes Don Quixote, who, perhaps like the hoppers Kurland photographs, indulges idealism at the expense of an honest connection with reality. 

"My Sleeping Baby," 2005, an achingly sweet portrait of Casper dozing in the back of the van, is packed with a range of painterly references. Cherubic, swaddled in the billowing folds of blankets and illuminated by brilliant sunlight peeking through curtains behind him, he could be the Christ child in a Renaissance portrait. But there is also palpable tenderness in the scene -- as his thumb pokes at his lower lip -- that calls to mind Mary Cassatt's portraits of children and babies. 

These photographs are rich in formal terms, too, as the neat S-curves of tracks breeze through the unruly contours of nature or, as in "UP From Cuervo's Camp, Doyle," 2007, a blank and snowy sky frames a train in generous white space. But it is the allusive images that allow what Kurland captures to transcend mere landscape photography and exposes their deliberate construction. This kind of referential bridge building extends the sense of freedom in her work beyond the literal expanse of the land, connecting it to the liberating spirit in all artistic production. 

After all, if the settings in "This Train Is Bound for Glory" are made up of places we have never seen, it is precisely because they are framed in a specific moment, seen from a specific perspective. It's not just that Kurland offers a glimpse of the transitory world of hoppers; she drops us into the thick of her own meandering travels and lets us look through her eyes.