For more than two decades, Doug and Mike Starn’s photographs have confounded and intrigued critics and audiences. By using unorthodox techniques, making exceptionally large and often dramatically shaped prints, and addressing subjects usually avoided by other artists, they have challenged the perception of what is accepted as “a photograph."
A major component of their work is the creation of individual pieces that are at times both sculptural and photographic. This duality is present in some of the earth-related works they are showing at FotoFest. The very different qualities of the two media create a purposeful tension in the pieces as well as for the viewer seeking to understand them.
The surface of a Starn photograph is rarely smooth. Among other effects, this dimensional, uneven, deteriorating surface undermines the documentary nature inherent in a simple photograph. The art object becomes simultaneously a photograph that is taken of something existing in the world (a tree, a moth, a leaf) and a device conceived and constructed by the artists to be more than a factual document. It becomes a metaphor, a holder of content other than what we normally associate with the photographed object. Consequently, the picture stirs viewers to think beyond easy recognition to the work’s greater implications and associations. The pieces evoke the complex systems of ideas that the Starns have been building and refining through successive bodies of work.
Now the Starns have added the pairing of art and science to their repertoire, an ancient contrasting dichotomy that nevertheless has a fruitful history of intersection. Absorption + Transmission extends as well the theme of light that has been a central component of the Starns’ work throughout their career. The series features the elements of nature mentioned above—trees and leaves—because there are physical and philosophical interconnections among these subjects, and between these natural elements and humans. The Starns focus the audience’s attention on various aspects of those relationships, particularly the interconnections with light and its polarity, darkness.
Their images of trees compose a series titled Structure of Thought; the photographs of leaves belong to the series Black Pulse...their mode of installation heightens the visual and process parallels between the flow of carbon-laden fluid in trees and leaves, and the flow of thought in neurons. Trees and leaves synthesize the carbon dioxide humans exhale. Oxygen exhaled leads to the black carbon. It is the blackness of carbon, and all the metaphorical references to blackness/darkness and light, that most inspires these artists. As they wrote in an unpublished statement, “In almost any culture in the history of the world, light is used as a metaphor for thought, knowledge, intelligence.”
Anne Wilkes Tucker
Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
DOUG & MIKE STARN Absorption + Transmission
Absorption +Transmission, is a recent body of work in which images of trees, leaves, neurons, and nocturnal moths come together in a complex installation. The series is comprised of black, silhouetted trees printed on hundreds of small sheets of Gampi paper that are glued together, varnished, and mounted to cover large wood frames. The interconnectedness of trees - branches over branches into branches like dendritic neurons in the brain, the layers are in relation to the complexities of knowledge, understanding, memory and imagination.
A spark—electricity snaps across a synapse and triggers thought. A flash—a camera lens burns a vision onto photographic film. Light flares and fades, a tree wakens and wilts. A blind Buddhist monk finds spiritual illumination dawning behind his eyes. The flickers of enlightenment radiate outward…
Mike and Doug Starn, American artists and identical twins, were born in New Jersey in 1961. Working collaboratively in photography since age thirteen, they continue to defy categorization by effectively combining traditionally separate disciplines such as sculpture, painting, video, and installation. Their work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide for two decades, and has received international critical acclaim for their conceptual approach to photography. Fueled by their thoughtful investigations of art, philosophy, cognitive science and history, the Starns provoke an interrogation of Cartesian ontology with their unique melding of metaphor and material. From the transformation of a delicate drying leaf into a digital sculpture, or a moth etched onto film by light, its own undoing, the Starns’ images thrum with the poetic tension between presence and absence, darkness and enlightenment.
The Starns’ recent projects include two major touring exhibitions that debuted in 2004. Both explore the manifestations and metaphors of light, their chief medium. Behind Your Eye, inaugurated at the Neuberger Museum of Art (Purchase College, Purchase, NY), dovetailed with the release of a monograph entitled Attracted to Light (Blind Spot/powerHouse Books), which featured the show’s full series of nocturnal moth studies. Later that year, the Starns premiered Gravity of Light at the Färgfabriken Kunsthalle (Stockholm, Sweden): seven monumental photographs seared onto the wall by the brilliant white-blue light of a carbon arc lamp, the most elemental form of artificial light and the exhibit’s sole source of illumination. Both exhibits will tour domestically and internationally through 2007, as will the smaller-scale Absorption + Transmission, commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., traveling domestically 2005/06. Displayed together, their varied series create multiple points of entry into an encompassing body of work bathed in a force field of interconnections as pervasive and invisible as light itself.
These recent works continue the thrust of the Starns’ longtime fascination with themes of light and darkness, nature and technology, past and present, part and whole; a distinctive dualism evident since their earliest works. The Starns first received critical attention in 1985 for their torn, taped, torqued, and intentionally distressed photographs which, by making visible the normally invisible machinations of the photographer, challenged not only the nature of photography but also the nature of art. This work was brought to a larger public at the 1987 Whitney Biennial. With large-scale, Scotch-Taped photographic prints push-pinned directly to the wall, the work disputed the notion of the mint condition, the idea of an eternal, ‘pure’ art unhinged from context and change. Indeed, their choices of subjects—architectural and classical elements, Old Master paintings, fallen leaves, trees, moths, Buddhist statuary and snow crystals currently in progress—build a visual lexicon with which to contemplate the passage of time. By infusing normally stable photographs with dynamism and dimensionality, they anticipate and embrace the accrual of meanings the artworks will experience over the years.
In 1988, just three years out of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Starns launched two traveling survey exhibitions and were featured in solos exhibits at Leo Castelli and Pace/MacGill Galleries. In 1990, Harry N. Abrams released the monograph Doug & Mike Starn, with essays by Robert Rosenblum and Andy Grundberg, on the occasion of a large museum-touring retrospective. Since then, they have built an international presence in museums and galleries, and appear in numerous group shows domestically and abroad. Their work has been acquired by more than 30 public permanent collections including the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA), the Jewish Museum (NYC), Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris, France), the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia), the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Seoul, South Korea), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (CA), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NYC), the Whitney Museum of American Art (NYC), the Yokohama Museum of Art (Yokohama, Japan), amongst others. The sweeping scope of their interests has led to fruitful professional and artistic collaborations with German art dealer Hans Mayer, Russian author Victor Pelevin, American actor Dennis Hopper, and NASA and CHSL scientists.
The Starns have received critical acclaim in The New York Times, Art in America, ARTFORUM, Flashart, and other international publications. They are recipients of two National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1987 and 1995 and The International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award for Fine Art Photography in 1992. In 2005, the Starns were awarded a commission by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority a monumental permanent art installation, scheduled for completion in 2007-08 at the South Ferry terminal.
Exhibitions/Publications Solo Exhibition
Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Absorption + Transmission, May 13 – October 8, 2006, Leiden, The Netherlands http://www.lakenhal.nl/nl/index.html
The Victoria & Albert Museum, October 27, 2006, London UK, http://www.vam.ac.uk/
Palazzo de Sant’Anna, Erectica: L’Arte contemporanea dalla trandescenza al profane, July 20 – September 30, 2006, Palermo, Italy
Grimaldi Forum, Principality of Monaco, New York, New York, July 13 – September 10, 2006, Monte Carlo
Palais des Beaux Arts, Family Affairs, June 14 – September 10, Brusels, Belgium