Starn Twins Famous At 29 For Collaborative Art

February 17, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

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."

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