They don't emphasize being The Starn Twins any more, although they freely admit, "We started it when we were students and we wanted people to remember our names and understand we were twins, it wasn't just brothers." But "in time it became such a label. . . . We started getting rid of it in 1987."
So now they're Doug and Mike Starn. Or "Mike and Doug Starn," the title of the exhibit of their radical, acclaimed photography that opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art today (through April 21).
They're not dressed alike: Doug has on a green sweat shirt and Mike an old-looking black jacket over a white shirt. And Mike has a bit of beard. Doug doesn't.
But you can't look at them and not know they're twins. You can't listen to their low-pitched, soft-spoken voices and not hear the similarity. And it's impossible to quote them separately. Often, one will start a thought, the other will pick it up in the middle and carry it a while, then the first will finish it. And they're inseparable, too, when they're making their art, for which they've become internationally famous at 29 -- they're in museum collections from Baltimore to Paris to Jerusalem to Mito, Japan.
Andy Grundberg, the art critic who wrote the essay for the catalog accompanying the exhibit, states, "It is impossible to distinguish their individual contributions to each piece, and when pressed to explain who did what their answers range from vague evasive."
They say that what one or the other may do simply makes no difference to their photography, though they don't make a fetish of doing everything exactly equally. "Maybe somebody will end up being more the one that does the gluing, but it doesn't make any difference. We both take the pictures, set up the contact sheets. We both discuss the size, the color, the framing, the construction."
Their work, as has been widely recognized, is in part about photography itself. Their photographs, printed on multiple pieces paper or film that have been cut, taped, sometimes framed in constructions that involve blocks of wood or clamps, sometimes combined with ribbon or wire, smash to smithereens the notion of a photograph as a pristine print on a piece of seamless paper that only shows as a discreet border.
"We're trying to show that photography isn't an image, it's a three-dimensional object. It can have the same kind of growth and limitations or non-limitations as the other arts. It doesn't have to be confined to a craft, or simply the photographer's eye and then the skill of printing."
That's not all their art is about, however. If it were, it would be of interest mainly to historians of photography. The Starns' images of such things as roses, clasped hands, the empty sea, the crucifixion and the dead Christ, presented in a manner that makes them look aged and battered, have evoked deep responses in people. They have been called Victorian. They have been called romantic. They have even been called cubist, which the Starns see as a misinterpretation of cubism, because while their works are printed on multiple pieces of paper they are shown from one rather than multiple points of view.
They used to argue with the romantic label, too, but now recognize that "there are certainly romantic parts to it, something that we're not too much in control of."
When asked what they think comes closest to describing their art, however, they give an answer that may surprise some: "It's modernist, and that's something that hasn't been dealt with a lot." Modernist, they say, partly because, "Our photography, in the way that we abuse the surface, or at least use the surface -- introduce it and not be afraid of it -- I think is somewhat modern. We're not trying to make something look beautiful and old at all, we're trying to show that photography is an object, and we can't deny that some of these things look old."
Modernist, then, because of the importance of the surface and as "an exploration of the medium." And modernist also because, "We feel the work is dualistic. One side is very formal; you have to imagine the artwork without the image. The image decorates the formal qualities. Some of our work has no image at all -- you look at our work very much in that respect -- you don't look at the image at all."
But there's the other side of the duality -- the fact that if in one sense it's all formality, at the same time, "It's supposed to connect with something inside you." That, perhaps, used to be ** more of a concern with them than it is now. "When we started this work we wanted to bring people in with the images." Nevertheless, they do believe their work "works for a larger mass than most contemporary art. . . . At least it's dramatic, and that at least can involve people. It's not sterile."
Like many artists, the Starns are deeply interested in the formalist side of their work. But they're always conscious of the other side, even with a work that for them is primarily formalist. A good example is their "Crucifixion" (1985-1988), for which they took an image of the dead Christ, originally horizontal, turned it into a vertical and spread it across a wall, repeating bits and pieces of the image and working into it bits and pieces of wire, wood, ribbon and tape.
"It shows our own personal taste. We are working with the installation on the wall. It's simple. No frame. Just tacked to the wall. . . . This is in a raw state, which is really exciting to us. It seems more easy to see this piece, to us, as very abstract, and not representation, and not as an image. We always install it with other abstract work. But on the representational side we feel we are trying to show the pain, and that it's an execution, and the isolation, the vulnerability."
When they began "Crucifixion" in 1985, the Starns were still in art school. That year they earned a Fifth Year Certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the previous year saw their first public show recorded by the catalog. "The response to the Starns' work has been so widespread and rapid," writes Grundberg, "that one tends to forget that their public career is only a few years old."
But they have been working with photography for 16 years. Born in Absecon, N.J., in 1961, they became interested in the medium at age 13, enrolled in a photography course at nearby Stockton State College in 1975, and spent the years 1980 to 1985 at the Boston school. After a few shows in Boston, they quickly found a gallery in New York (where they now live), and wowed the critics with the installation of several of their works including "Stretched Christ" (1985-1986, an elongated version of a photograph of a painting by Philippe de Champaigne) at the 1987 Whitney Biennial. Since then their fame has steadily grown. The critical reception of their work has been largely but not universally favorable, but the work always provokes strong reactions, whether favorable or unfavorable. People notice.
People sometimes draw the wrong conclusions. One of the inferences the Starns have taken some pains to correct is the idea that they tear up photographs. The way they work is actually somewhat the opposite.
"First, we take the pictures," they explain. Then, with an enlarger, they project the image of a photograph on the darkroom wall. Then they decide how big the picture should be. "We decide maybe if it's going to be 6 by 8 feet, then we tape black tape to that outline, turn off the enlarger, do whatever kind of design we want to do with whatever kind of material, paper or film, andthen we expose that." So instead of tearing up a photograph, they build a design on which they print the photograph.
Because their photographs look old, they have been interpreted to be about mortality, and not just the mortality of man but the mortality of art. It can be thought that at some point these photographs will disintegrate, will cease to be. But again, the Starns' attitude is somewhat the opposite.
For one thing, a Starn work "might look a lot more fragile than it is. The tape and everything is how we construct it, like we're building it to see what it looks like. But then it's glued together and things like that, and they [the photographs] are archivally processed."
But also, since age and damage are built into the works, if they should become more damaged accidentally, it could in a way be part of their construction.
They cite an example: When they took "Stretched Christ" out of )) storage for the present show, they found that the glass on it, which is considered an integral part of the work, had been smashed. "So we put some wood support on it and safety glass patches and it's not ruined at all. It helps show the idea. I don't think anybody could look at the piece and say, 'This is trash now.' "
Which is not to say that they want their work vandalized.
"No way," they say.
Among many characteristics of the Starns' work that critics have singled out is its beauty. In 1987 Joe Jacobs wrote of its "sheer beauty." The following year Richard P. Woodward called it "large, beautiful and romantic." The Starns may disagree with some critics about some aspects of their work, but they take no issue with those who cite its beauty. Beauty is not a concept that all artists embrace today, but the beauty that critics see in the Starns' works is put there, they say.
"It's intentional. I think [beauty is] not [art's] sole responsibility, but I think it's a great responsibility. When we go to Europe and go to the churches and the museums, we're so overwhelmed in a way that, when you're lucky, some contemporary art can do. I think beauty can be a real key to your soul.
"The age of beauty isn't over, and it better not ever be."
'Mike and Doug Starn'
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.
When: Today through April 21.
Tickets: $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for senior citizens and students; no admission charge on Thursdays.