On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

MIKE AND DOUG STARN 1990

Despite its now venerable history--150 years old in 1989--the medium of photography still arouses many of the same expectations it held at its birth. We intuit, for one thing, that a photograph tells us the truth about an instant in time and a fragment in space, flash- freezing for posterity sights as dramatic as the ruins of Richmond, Virginia, in 1865 or as prosaic as a family gathering in Absecon, New Jersey, in 1961, the place and the year of the birth of Mike and Doug Starn. And we expect, too, that a photograph, in its role as a time-capsule document of our communal and individual lives on earth, should be preserved for the future in as pristine a form as possible, an unchanging image fixed on paper that might survive the ravages of time and death. Many photographers, of course, have challenged some of these stubborn assumptions, creating, for example, montages and dreamworlds that subvert the initially objective premises of photography; but few, if any, have mounted so personal yet so full-scale an attack upon the conventions and restrictions of the medium as Mike and Doug Starn. For them, photography, which usually delivers its messages in the present tense, could be opened to a vast new range of temporary experiences that include the slow and layered accumulation of memory and history and the melancholy decay of flesh and matter. It is no accident that many of their works, like those of Cézanne that were painted and repainted over months and years, are often left looking as if they were still in a state of becoming.

The haunting and at times even ectoplasmic environment created by the Starns suggests a hermetic world, the stuff of a Gothic novel, a uniqueness of vision surely fostered, too, by our awareness of the uncommon phenomenon of their being identical twins who work as one artist. Indeed, their twinning creates resonant psychological dimensions that are clearly reflected in their preferred configurations. For instance, paired or mirrored motifs recur throughout their work, often creating surrogate double portraits. At times, as in one of their variations (fig. 199) on a Rembrandt in Chicago (a portrait presumably of the artist's father), the head is reflected upside down, playing-card fashion, in a Narcissus-like pattern that is also used for the twins' self-portraits as well as for less personal images. And insofar as their work often evokes an archaic mood from the history of photography, their frequent use of stereo- scopic double formats is one that intersects both their private identity and the technological history of their medium. Such a magnetic attraction to doubled imagery can even be found in many of their choices from earlier art. It is telling that when they selected a painting by Picasso for photographic inspiration, they originally considered the 1921 trio of neoclassic

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