I’m not really all that into cars. By which I mean I don’t care at all about them. Every Sunday morning, I cast aside the Automobiles section of the New York Times with a silent “What the fuck?” as if it were an affront encountered for the very first time.
I bought my first car in Portland, Oregon in 1996 I think. It was a five-year-old Volkswagon Fox. I dunno, it could have been ten years old. So let’s say somewhere in between. I didn’t need it very often, it was inexpensive to maintain, and parking was easy in my neighborhood. And I will say this: there is something about a manual transmission that connects you to your driving that I feel is extrapolable – meaning that I think everyone should experience it. But still, when I sold the Fox before moving to New York City at the end of ‘98, there was not the slightest pang of regret.
My second car was purchased in Los Angeles in 2001 if, not exactly under duress, then something akin. The whole Cali escapade is not much worth retelling, although I suppose it is relevant to explaining my aversion to motor vehicles to say that on the way out there in January of that year, driving a rented Budget van with all my possessions in the back and my beloved in the passenger seat, I managed to hit some ice on an overpass near Elk City, Oklahoma and flip said van one and one-quarter times longitudinally (meaning: my left shoulder ended up on the bottom), bringing it to rest on a particularly generous and grassy strip of median.
He survived. Me too. But if you’re one to believe in omens, then perhaps the wreck is/was operative. A relationship that had survived a year together in New York and a year apart while he was in California ended up only lasting another few months in LA. By May, I was on my way back east alone in the car we (read: me, with the last of the cash I had moved out there with) had bought. Please believe me when I say I now have no idea what the make and model of this car was; that’s how far I have put this vehicle out of my mind. But I do recall that its condition was such that I drove it at night through SoCal, Arizona, and New Mexico, which were already ungodly hot at that point in the year. By the time I got to Texas, the temps had lowered somewhat and I was feeling pretty good.
Which of course meant that the car would have to start bellowing steam as I approached Amarillo. All I could do was pull over on I-40 and wait for that shit to stop and see if I could make it to a garage. So, ok, here’s also probably why me and cars: to my knowledge, I am the first-generation male in my family to have maintained a willful ignorance of the internal combustion engine. That’s fine most of the time, but once you put yourself at the mercy (geographically, intellectually, emotionally) of the automobile, well then you are just seriously eff’d.
I did make it into a service station on the outskirts of Amarillo. I told the kid at the desk that I was at least glad the car didn’t break down in the middle of nowhere. He looked around a little bit and said, “Well where exactly do you think you are?”
Middle of nowhere, alright. And it was a Saturday afternoon, the day before Mother’s Day. They sort of had a tradition of not working on Mother’s Day, so he hoped they could take a look before close of business that day. They did and didn’t have the part for whatever make and model this was. I was stuck there until Monday or Tuesday probably.
And here is where I’m getting to my point and (you hope, I imagine) a segue. Those three or so days in a Days Inn in Amarillo, Texas were by far the most precisely miserable in my life. It wasn’t so much the breakup itself, although that was still raw. It was that I had zero control of anything. I couldn’t make that guy love me, I couldn’t find any suitable job in LA, I couldn’t even make that piece-of-shit car get me back to my folks’ place in Illinois (I had just turned 33 and all I wanted were my Mom and Dad) and then back on to New York City where I belonged. If I had had any money at all, I would have flown home. But it was a Days Inn for me, stuck with every wretched concrete detail of that hotel and the Waffle House next door and the very expanse of concrete that led to the garage.
Let’s stop there for a moment. I wrote all of the above, and most of the below, and showed it to Justine Kurland, whose work is the ultimate subject of this essay and to whom you have not yet been introduced. She liked the piece, but scolded me for leaving out some rather pertinent information, some stuff that happened just last summer. That was problem #1.
Problem #2 was all mine: I had written all that personal history with the purpose of linking it to some thinking about Justine’s latest exhibition. And it sounded good for a while, but then I had some anxiety that no one would care about that (which is sort of funny because if you’ve read this blog before, you’ve probably encountered plenty that you didn’t care about), and moreover what did my unique hangups have to do with an analysis of the show?
So I tabled the piece for a while. And then I came across an essay called “Criticism and Aesthetics” in which Lionel Trilling asserts that “if human experience – human danger and pain – is made the material of an artistic creation, the judgment that is directed upon that creation will involve important considerations of practicality and thus of cogency, relevance, appositeness, logicality, and truth.” And so where are the considerations of relevance and truth going to come from, if not from me? Indeed, it takes two to tango: “Wordsworth insisted that meanings and values were to be found in the conjunction of a mind that could discover values with an object that could generate them.” Now of course the immediate lesson is that the value-discovering mind of the artist must meet with the appropriate object. But I think it applies on a second level as well, when the value-discovering critic meets with the object of art. (And it feels good to get license from Wordsworth to do what you wanted to do anyway.)
One more thing from the Trilling: He approves of Dr. L.A. Reid’s allowance for “personal and historical associations, irrational attachments and affections, to take their place as legitimate elements of the aesthetic experience.” More unimpeachable license, especially if one thinks that my feelings about cars are irrational, which collective “one” includes me sometimes.
Bottom line: I decided to forge on, which is obvious as you are now reading this. I tweaked the part about the exhibition a little, and added the events of the summer of 2015. So back to where we left off . . .
The garage: the subject, generally, of the photographs in Justine Kurland’s “Sincere Auto Care,” shown at Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Chelsea this past fall. Full disclosure (it feels super-legitimately journalistic to say “full disclosure”): Justine is a dear friend. So take this with a grain of salt. But then again, this is not even really a “review” of a gallery show, so take it as you will.
For all that road trip is integral to American photography, from The Americans through Shore and Sternfeld and on to today (check out David Campany’s recent Open Road book from Aperture, in which Kurland’s work is featured), we don’t think so much about the means of conveyance itself. The (fully operational) car or van is sort of a given in our mythology. Except when it’s not: when the vehicle is immobile and under the care of the dudes at Sincere Auto Care.
Disrepair is all around: hoods open, engine blocks disembodied, hydraulic lifts lifted, engine fluids run amok. Maybe my favorite single aspect of the project is the way Kurland expresses the precariousness of the position of the mechanic: the ostensibly tough guy with muscles and copious ink whose boxer briefs show when he scoots under a thousand pounds of metal.
Despair, too, is all around. Or maybe I should say that despair is all inside. This is where I’m projecting: I am stuck here, at the mercy of my machine, which is too complicated for me to control. I am at the mercy of the mechanic, who, let’s face it, is probably not the type of guy I’m hanging out with in my normal day-to-day life. I have joined ranks with some of the other folks in these pictures, the hangers-around who you just know don’t have a ready means of escape either. My wings are clipped; I might as well be that road-kill sparrow in one of the photographs. Except thank god my situation is hopefully only temporary.
Maybe that all makes “Sincere Auto Care” sound terribly glum. And it’s not. There is indeed a sincerity, and a sensitivity, in the execution of the photographs that is consoling – a subtle but rigorous form imposed upon the chaos of disrepair. Which brings me around to why this essay is as much about me as about “Sincere Auto Care.” The strength of these photographs is that they fully inhabit a well-chosen concrete aspect of the real world, which is the foothold from which I may make abstractions that are relevant and truthful to me. The formal consolation of the pictures brought back to me the misery of more than ten years ago and offered a structure to make some sense of it.
I experienced that misery – my preferred brand: that feeling of zero control (and once again, involving vehicles) – fresh again last summer when I got stuck in Rochester. (Should I mention here that I know that my misery is selfish and small compared to the miseries of this world? Because I do know that. But as Hedwig says of her Angry Inch: “It is what I have to work with.”)
Cutting to chase: I drove with Justine from New York City to Rochester for the Visual Studies Workshop Symposium in late June. She was on a picture-making trip in her infamous home-away-from-home van, and she swung by the city to pick me up, drop off some film, and head north. The plan was to stop for the first night in Syracuse and hang with Rory Mulligan, who was there for a month as a Lightwork fellow.
The omen on this trip was the second most harrowing bit of driving I have ever done in my life. I was at the wheel on I-81 while Justine took a nap in the back. It had been raining a bit off and on, but somewhere on the long stretch south of Cortland, all hell broke loose. I am certain that I have never experienced a downpour so all-encompassing. Within a few seconds, visibility was a couple car lengths at most, and I was unable to hear the radio at all.
To the credit of my fellow drivers that afternoon, virtually everyone slowed down to like 25 mph and stayed in the right lane with their hazards on. I think only one or two cars passed us in the almost forty long minutes of the storm. Justine had been travelling solo for several days, so her exhaustion had allowed her to sleep through the first twenty minutes or so, but then I heard a rustling and a “Holy shit,” when she peeked through the curtain from the back of the van. She crawled into the passenger seat and read from a book about hooliganism at UK football matches to help me relax.
OK, so we made it through that and I drank a lot of beer that night at Rory’s. The next day we drove up through Justine’s home town of Fulton and on to a beach on Lake Erie. We swam and sat in the sun and it was lovely. We hit Rochester in time for the symposium opening event in the evening, and then went to have drinks in advance of meeting some other friends of hers. Now, much of the reason that I adore Justine is that she does not feel the need to be agreeable, and we often argue good-naturedly. But this evening, after a beer and half, I took something personally and objected strenuously enough as to raise my voice way more than I had ever done before with her. That’s all that it’s necessary to say, and also that we fairly quickly buried it and had a lovely time when the others joined us. We camped that night outside of town.
The next day was hungover and hot. I stayed around the symposium site all day, but this was still a working trip for Justine, so she took off occasionally to photograph. Nearing the end of the presentations for the day, I got call from her: “I can’t make pictures here. I need to get out of town. And I’m still mad about you yelling at me last night.” She picked me up, I got all my shit together in the van, and she dropped me off at a hotel where a friend was staying. And that was that.
I’m a resourceful enough guy, and I managed to figure out a way home: a bummed car ride to Providence and then Amtrak to Penn Station and a #2 subway train home. And I had a really good time in Rochester after she left. But still I felt sort of sick to my stomach. Less because of what Justine had done than because I had left myself exposed to the anxiety that I’ve already described and that I have subsequently been fairly successful at avoiding. The wings were clipped again, even if not for very long. Which maybe is a topic for analysis or something, I don’t know.
Anyway, if you’re still with me, what I’m getting at is that I experienced a pretty powerful déjà vu in Rochester that related to that miserable time back in Amarillo. And seeing Justine’s exhibition evoked a similar déjà vu. And now I see that it seemed natural, even obvious, that I would prefer to write about the photographs and how they unearthed feelings from my past, and not about Rochester doing pretty much the same thing. Because the former is art and the latter is real life. Given the option, I would have vastly preferred the madeleine to come in the form of photographs on the gallery wall rather than abandonment in the world. But what I mean to say is that I didn’t realize exactly how powerful the pictures (and not only those in “Sincere Auto Care,” but in any body of work that affects me) could be in the Proustian sense until I had the real-life event with which to compare them. It was a good lesson. Sincerely.