Owing to the efforts of its 19th-century landscape photographers and painters, images of the American wilderness have always been intertwined with the founding ideals of that nation. Thomas Cole, the pre-eminent American landscape artist of his time, depicted the seemingly untouched expanses of the west as an Arcadian Paradise or Garden of Eden. This was a place where humankind could live in harmony with nature in the ideal republic envisaged by Thomas Jefferson and the nation's founding fathers, a land where peaceful and self-contained agrarian communities would meet with little interference from any government. In her first London solo show, mystically titled 'Golden Dawn', Justine Kurland does not stray far from this peculiarly American idea of Utopia. The result of a six-month road trip, the exhibition is made up of photographs that Kurland took while living with 13 different rural Hippy communes around the country - remote outposts of 1960s idealism that she documented by asking the inhabitants to pose naked in the landscape, like innocents in the Garden of Eden or gardeners after the Fall.
Kurland's photographs record what, but for the nudity and the proliferation of long hair and beards, look like fairly ordinary people, in landscapes that range from the arid terrain of a cactus-filled desert to the snow-covered forest of Buses on the Farm (2003), an image of two vulnerable-looking girls wrapped in duvets in order to protect their bare flesh from the cold. As an indication of the transience of their lifestyle, two battered buses frame the picture. Meanwhile, First Dwelling Place (2003) depicts a group of people tending a vegetable garden in the woods. Naked as the day he was born, a man waters the plants with a hose while women dig the soil in front of a corrugated-iron house. By adopting these quasi-biblical narratives Kurland seems very consciously to be drawing parallels between these people and the early American pioneers, many of whom came to the New World from Britain in order to form religious communities. In this instance, however, Christianity seems to combine with New Age mysticism. The universe described here is in keeping with Kurland's previous photographic works populated by adolescent girls; images where females outnumber the males.
West of Water (2003), one of the more staged-looking photographs, shows a large group of young women kneeling on a rocky shoreline. They look past a small island and towards the sea, the palms of their hands together as if in prayer. Seen from behind, they mostly conform to the saccharine image of female beauty favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites - in their early 20s, long hair, elegant figures, apart from one young girl to the left of the picture who still has her puppy fat. In contrast to their seemingly documentary character, the composition of these photographs is careful, even painterly. Magic Afloat (2003) is an example of this tendency, in which two naked young females picking their way through a forest are posed in a manner reminiscent of Victorian fairy paintings. Kurland is using a set of tools here that, post-Jeff Wall, seem to have become commonplace in a lot of contemporary photography: references to historical painting combined with a staged feeling to the image and the suggestion of a narrative. All of which serve to indicate that it is not reality we see in the photograph, but a construct in which the photographer is also present.
Essentially Kurland is re-enacting the kind of westward journey undertaken by painters such as Cole, in search of a vision of the rural Utopia described by the founding fathers. By the 19th century this bore little relation to the fast-disappearing wilderness, under threat from the demands of a perpetually swelling American population, and similarly in Kurland's photographs there are few indications of the reality of a nonconformist, rural, Hippy lifestyle. However, unlike the work of her forebears, this is a deliberate and nostalgic fantasy. It's hard not to wonder, though, about the hardships and the politics that may be lie behind Kurland's rose-tinted representation - as sometimes the truth is more interesting than fiction.