Not since the 1988 Anselm Kiefer show in Philadelphia has this reviewer been so knocked over by an exhibit of contemporary art as by "Mike and Doug Starn," now at the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 21.
The Starns are entirely correct when they say their photographic constructions are modernist in having a duality of emphasis in which form is as important as content. By printing their photographs on torn, taped, bent, glued paper or film, by exhibiting them in broken frames behind multiple pieces of glass, by holding their images together with clamps or leaning them against the wall instead of hanging them, the Starns have changed the nature and the perception of the art of photography.
But happily, these formalistic concerns are not ends in themselves, or even simply one aspect of the Starns' work as distinct from its content. For in their work, form and content achieve a synthesis that is an art of profound expressiveness and emotion. One cannot experience this show without coming away deeplyshaken by their pessimistic vision of a world destroying itself and at the same time moved by their determination to salvage some scraps of a heritage that once gave meaning to life.
In their work, the re-use of older art, and particularly religious art such as Philippe de Champaigne's dead Christ, is so much more than slick appropriation. In their "Stretched Christ" (1985-1986), an elongated image in which parts of the body are repeated, the sword wound and the nail hole in the feet are seen three times. The reference to the trinity is obvious but one can see here, too, not only the death of Christ but the death of religion and the resultant death of the meaning of religious art. And by showing this image horizontal in a black frame on legs and a base, they put Christ both in a coffin and in a coffee table, reflecting the modern triumph of materiality over spirituality. Yet by giving us the image in its poor shattered state, they do recapture its poignancy.
Their images, whether of Christ or of roses, of the empty sea or of themselves, are violent, battered, lonely and sad. There is beauty in them but it is the beauty of being able to feel and communicate the terrible realities of the macroscopic world as we know it and the microscopic individual psyche that must live and die within that larger reality.
Not all of their work is equally strong. How could it be? But being surrounded by it for any length of time is almost more than one can take -- proof at least that art can still be capable of evoking strong feelings. As a body of work, the Starns' art suggests nothing so much as Beckett's great cry, "I can't go on I must go on." There is not quite despair, just enough of the almost forsaken desire for hope to make the anguish of going on even sharper. What the Starns' work means to photography is less important than what it means to us.