Although it's not unusual for young artists to come a long way fast in the hyperactive and hype-filled contemporary art scene, Mike and Doug Starn have shot to the top so fast that you can't be blamed for doing a double take.
These 29-year-old identical twins have been busy making their medium-expanding photographic assemblages since the mid-1980s, but widespread recognition has only snowballed since their inclusion in the 1987 Whitney Biennial.
Now an extensive survey exhibit of their work has touched down at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Somehow the designation of this as a "mid-career" survey doesn't quite seem the right term for artists who can watch the TV series "thirtysomething" for future guidance.
But hey, these guys are so talented that we'll probably be arguing over the meaning of their work for decades.
The twins themselves tend to be rather shoulder-shruggy and reticent when asked about the methods and meaning of their work, but as if through a process of osmosis they seem to have soaked up the concerns of 20th Century art and produced something original.
Those two buzz words from the late '80s art world, "appropriation" and "deconstruction," seem like innate working method rather than archly ironic procedure for them.
A key to the boldness of what they're doing with photography, as well as a primer of sorts for the uninitiated gallery-goer, is actually provided by another current photography exhibit at the BMA, "Constructed Images," in which a group of photographers expand on the possibilities of the medium in order to express their respective heritages.
Maybe if you walk through that show first you'll get a good idea of how the Starn twins are part of a photographic generation of rule-breakers, and also how the Starns in turn up the ante.
Central to what might paradoxically be termed their anti-fine art fine art is their insistence that the photographic print need not be a neatly isolated image printed on archivally pristine paper.
They favor repeated and often collaged images, and moreover, images printed on paper in which the tonal qualities of the paper are of equal importance to the images themselves. They like to take that paper and crease it, rip it, bash it up. It's as if they had read art textbook instructions not to bend, fold, mutilate or spindle and then set out to do all of the above. And they even pin the paper directly to the wall as if this were a college dorm and not an art museum.
Their photographic collages seem to be coming apart as much as coming together. They even join their photographic collages together with tape that by now has started to yellow, since the built-in aging process is part of what these young artists are after (some of their collectors are no doubt less sanguine on this matter).
And the Starns readily shift from collage-oriented assemblages to larger, more sculpturally oriented pieces that use pipe clamps as structural supports for the armatures supporting the images. Some of the work hangs from the wall, while other pieces lean against it.
This is work so far beyond what is contained within the usual wood frame (and frame of reference) that the frames themselves tend in an ironic manner to frame the museum wall as much as the artwork.
As for the imagery itself, the Starns present us with religious, art historical and personal images that are repeated (twinned!), splintered, refracted and splattered with tonal washes as if roughly pulled from a well-stocked late 20th Century memory bank.
Incidentally, it's gratifying to be able to walk from the BMA's present exhibit of Rembrandt prints directly into the Starns' exhibit and see what they have done with images from that Dutch master.
Among the most resonant images in the show is a wall-mounted "Crucifixion" assemblage in which an image of the crucified Christ is repeated five times (with significant variations) across the surface of the wall. In Warhol fashion we see the repetition of suffering, to be sure, but this piece is also about the making of itself.
Thus we see a visible wooden support that is both cross and assemblage support, and coiled wire that both "connects" constituent elements and in one area doubles as a crown of thorns. This assemblage is dismembered as much as assembled against the wall.
Trying to understand what the Starns are up to, it might be helpful to consider the contemporary abstract artist Frank Stella's famous statement that "what you see is what you see," and then to consider that for the more figuratively oriented Starns, born at this late date in the history of modernism, what you see is what you see and also the sum of everything you have seen.
The Mike and Doug Starn exhibit remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 21. For information call 396-6310.