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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review SCUMB Manifesto Artworks by Justine Kurland Reviewed by Brian Arnold "Looking back at Hannah Höch’s work provides an interesting platform for understanding the new book of collages by American photographer Justine Kurland, SCUMB Manifesto. If you believe that history comes in cycles, there are incredible overlaps between the time Höch was developing her work and the cultural environment Kurland experiences today..."

SCUMB Manifesto. By Justine Kurland.
SCUMB Manifesto
Artworks by Justine Kurland

MACK, London, UK, 2021. 288 pp., 9¾"x12¾.

sabotage /sabə täZH/
    verb     deliberately destroy, damage, or 
                  obstruct (something), especially for
                  political or military advantage.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for the first time in 1997, where I saw a retrospective by the German Dada artist Hannah Höch. This was not only my first time at the museum, but this was also the first time I saw a major retrospective exhibit, and I was enthralled. Höch’s imagination captivated me, using simple tools she was able to create such an expressive reality, both a personal narrative and a scathing critique of cultural norms. Dada came to light between the World Wars, and collage was an essential tool for their vision. Disillusioned by the industrial revolution and a war-torn Europe, collage provided new vocabularies for identifying and deconstructing the societies of their time. Höch was an innovator of her day, not just by being a woman in the extremely patriarchal ranks of the Dada artists, and a self-identified lesbian, but as a truly visionary and original artist. Collage was the perfect medium for her to create her own vocabulary for constructing her identity and challenging a culture that attempted to control and define her sense of self.

Looking back at Hannah Höch’s work provides an interesting platform for understanding the new book of collages by American photographer Justine Kurland, SCUMB Manifesto. If you believe that history comes in cycles, there are incredible overlaps between the time Höch was developing her work and the cultural environment Kurland experiences today. When the work of the Dada artists took root, Europe was grabbling with the Spanish Flu, Fascism was on the rise (we have Trump and Putin), and Europe was divided by a war emanating along their Eastern borders. Dada, by its very name, was nonsense, and an attempt to subvert the norms that allowed for so much cultural cacophony. Collage was a perfect tool for their vision, providing an atavistic approach to dismantling the media and the cultural environment.

SCUMB Manifesto
is similar in so many ways, using a primitive cut-and-paste approach to collage (refreshing to see in our highly polished digital age) to dismantle the works of a culture defined by a pandemic, war, and abuses of power too abundant to fully acknowledge. In the wake of her superb publications with Aperture — Highway Kind and Girl Pictures, as well as the more autobiographical book The Stick published by TIS — this new book takes aim at the institutions that have allowed for and facilitated suppression of gender and queer personalities, specifically the white, European men that have defined and controlled the field of photography for its first 150 years. SCUMB Manifesto is a book of collages — deliberately identified by Kurland as a violent methodology — with all the source imagery culled from the heteronormative, patriarchal, white male culture that has controlled photographic discourse and created the canon. Artists like Edward Weston and Lee Friedlander — icons of the medium — are sliced apart and glued back together in pieces, creating monstrosities that reveal the oppressive gender hierarchies at play in their visions. She also calls out the “rapey gaze” of the tenured professors and curators that have provided the architecture to create this canon. To call Kurland’s book aggressive is an understatement; at times the book is overwhelming in the violence it visualizes, full of a rage only tempered by the compositional sophistication and insight of an extremely accomplished photographer.

Kurland makes no attempt to hide the source of her collages, and any discerning and well-informed photographer will recognize the pictures and books she cuts apart to make SCUMB Manifesto. Indeed, many of the collages are made from one book, the final creation pasted into the spines laid bare by her knife (an interesting material metaphor). For those interested in photobook history, you will see so many legends ripped apart — probably blasphemy to some, but I think this is precisely the kind of reaction Kurland wants — What We Bought by Robert Adams, American Monument and Nudes by Lee Friedlander (there are several collages built from this book), Sleeping by the Mississippi by Alec Soth, The Americans and Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank, The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon, and American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld are all amongst these books. You can also recognize pictures by Larry Clark, Hans Bellmar, Gordon Parks, Richard Avedon, Edward Weston, William Eggelston, David Douglas Duncan, Nicholas Nixon, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Irving Penn, etc. (there is a list of titles in the back that usually identifies the source, but I found it more fun to see how much I could identify on my own). The commonality of all these men is their irrefutable position in the photographic canon, and all (or at least most) actively embracing their masculinity as part of their vision.

In assembling her pieces, Kurland uses several different types of collage strategies. Many are about representations of women, but not all. She also creates color abstractions; multilayered, 3-dimensional pieces as she burrows down into the pages of a book rather than ripping them apart, and collages that strip the source photographs down to the barest bones of representation. Seeing all these together is very interesting as it often feels like you can witness Kurland learning her process as you page through the book, noting different methodologies and techniques she discovered along the way.

As I often feel when looking at MACK publications, this book warrants an acknowledgement of Morgan Crowcroft-Brown, the chief designer for their publications. This is a large-format book with plenty of gatefolds, both lending the book a labyrinthian experience but also allowing for a clear engagement of the original work. I reckon these are printed 1:1 with the original pieces (at least some of them) and as such facilitating what feels like a direct engagement with the ideas rather than just being reproductions. The binding of the book is unfinished, making the book appear like the remnants of Kurland’s compositional strategies — the original act of destruction by freeing the spine is an essential step for any book-based collage (have you ever ripped a book out of a spine? It’s much more visceral and gratifying than you can possibly imagine).

Often the vitriol of Kurland’s work is more interesting than the visuals, the physical and violent act of cutting and defiling is more interesting than her compositions. Recognizing how tightly edited and disciplined Highway Kind and Girl Pictures are as books, SCUMB Manifesto does feel under-edited. There are over 110 compositions in the book, and all were made over just two years — between 2019-2021, not much time to produce so much work. And several times in the book, Kurland cuts the photographs into slivers that she uses to spell out her name, Justine. I’m sure this is self-referential, but it also works as a reference to the famous book by the Marquis de Sade. Either way, it feels a bit too much like a tagline and not an important visual expression. Most of the collages are powerful and layered statements, and something so simple and blunt diminishes the complexity of these images.

The book does include writing by Marina Chao, Renee Gladman, Catherine Lord, Ariana Reines, and Kurland herself. The writing has a unique character for this kind of lavish art publication. There are some art historical perspectives, but other pieces are personal memoirs or prose poems built around Kurland’s work. I like Ariana Reines’, a poet, playwright, performance artist, and translator, piece entitled “The First Cut is the Deepest,” a reflection back to her punk rock feminist roots. Catherine Lord’s contribution also has an especially nice swagger:

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Yes. YES. NO, thing on it sister Audre, madame, ma belle, ma Cherie, ma jumelle, sa zami. Sometimes the master’s tools are the only things that will cut apart the big house. Think Grace Poole and the candle. Think Antoinette Cosby. Think Valeri, the patron saint of razor-sharp satire, thus razors, thus collage.

To fully address SCUMB Manifesto, it is necessary to say something about Valerie Solanas, a feminist writer and radical from the late 1960s, and whose fingerprints appear on every page of this book. Author of SCUM Manifesto, Solanas is typically better known for shooting artist Andy Warhol. Both books are titled with acronyms, SCUM for Society for Cutting Up Men, and SCUMB as a simple adaptation of the original, Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books.

The story of Solana shooting Warhol is interesting and tells us a bit about her vision and ire. In 1968, she marched to the Chelsea Hotel with a gun in search of Maurice Giordias, a publisher and pornographer newly arrived in New York City from France. Giordias ran the Olympia press, a publisher eventually absorbed by the Grove Press. He made his money publishing pulp erotica for soldiers fighting in Europe during World War II, but developed both his controversy and reputation by being the first to publish such innovative and challenging novels as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, and The Story of O. He also published Henry Miller, William Burroughs, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence — all these writers and books providing decisively masculine, if not misogynistic, visions. Solanas went to the Chelsea Hotel to demand that Giordias publish her book, if not she would kill him with her gun. Giordias was away for the weekend, so was never confronted. Not to be deterred, Solanas next went to the office of Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press, to demand the same. Again, he was gone. In a last-ditch effort, Solanas next went to Andy Warhol’s studio, the Factory. She shot Warhol because she felt he had stolen the rights to one of her plays, another agent of her artistic oppression. All these men were leading figures in a cultural and artistic avant-garde (a cross-section of culture in which Solanas identified), chauvinistic gate-keepers intent on oppressing her vision of radical feminism. Ironically enough, Giordias had paid Solanas $500 and felt that entitled him to publish SCUM Manifesto after she was arrested, to cash in on her newly found notoriety.

I think of Solanas as a Ted John Kaczynski-like voice of late 1960s feminist thought, and the SCUM Manifesto professed the belief that men had ruined the world and it was up to women to take it back to a more righteous form (like Kaczynski, Solanas was onto something). I think she shot Warhol simply for being a powerful man with so much influence over the art world. A hypocrite, indeed, Warhol was someone who benefited from a gay or bisexual lifestyle but still did nothing to champion women and feminists of his day. Justine Kurland’s book is an appropriation of sorts, clearly and deliberately referring to Solana’s book. I think Kurland, however, is also trying to rewrite history and asks us not to think of Solanas simply as the woman who shot Warhol, but instead to see her as a revolutionary thinker who understood the caustic effects of patriarchy on art and intellectualism.

I submitted this essay to photo-eye on May 4, 2022, a day after a document leaked from the office of Samuel Alito that declared an end to the Civil Rights for women created by Roe v. Wade, and I am stunned by this remarkably backwards step in our culture. But I must confess it also makes Justine Kurland’s SCUMB Manifesto that much more timely and urgent. I think there are a lot of women and men who would like to take a hammer to the corrupt government and electoral systems that allowed for such a brutal and minority opinion to define the law of the land. Cut with a kitchen knife, indeed.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.