The Starn Twins

Mario Diacono Gallery

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix)

I talked to Mike and Doug Starn last week at Mario Diacono‘s gallery in the Fenway. They were both wearing torn blue jeans and leather jackets, and their reddish-brown hair cascaded down to their shoulders in long, gentle curls. Mike and Doug Starn look like a pair of slightly tarnished angels; Titian would have loved to paint them. They are 28 years old, and it’s easier to tell them apart now, because Mike is wearing a wedding ring.

When the Starns were students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, they developed a way of making pictures together that worked for them both as artists and as twins. They bent and tore their pictures, creased and folded them, and taped them back together, not quite whole. (Their work always makes me think of these lines from a Bruce Springsteen song: “We took what we had and we tore it apart“.) The cracks and creases became a lyrical procession of bright white lines across the shiny black of the photo paper. Together, they pushed photography out to the edge, and brought a new, painterly richness to the surface.

“It came out of doing what people were telling you not to do for 150 years,” said Doug.” “In photography, the only interest had been in images,” said Mike. “We didn’t see why the art should end with the image,” said Doug.” “We wanted to expand it,” said Mike. “To open it up,” said Doug. “To open up the possibilities”, said Mike.

When the Starns worked on paper, sepia tones and blurred images often gave their work the aura of old ninteteenth century photographs. Now they are printing on big sheets of transparent Ortho (polyester resin) film. Some of the dreamy, romantic quality of their early work has disappeared. The new work has a heightened sense of drama and movement, and an almost sculptural presence. All of the work in this show descends from an image of a Hellenistic bronze sculpture from the mid-2nd century B.C., known as “Horse and Rider of Artemision“.

“It’s a real frightening sculpture, it just knocks you down,” said Mike, who took the picture on a trip to Greece. “It really doesn’t matter who took the picture,” said Mike. “I took a thousand pictures over there. We chose this image together, and what matters is its growth through discussions and debate.” “To open it up to the possibilities,” said Doug. “To open it up to the possibilities,” said Mike.

The muscles in the horse’s neck tense and strain; the young man is holding on with all his strength. The horse is almost out of control, pulling the terrified rider along, against his will, like a great force of nature, or passion, or art. The horse and the rider were found separately in 1928, with a statue of Poseidon, in a shipwreck under the Aegean Sea.

I believe the rider must be Hippolytus, at the moment when Poseidon sends a sea-monster to terrify the horse that he is riding by the sea. Hippolytus loved horses and he was a great rider of horses, and no horse has ever thrown him before, but the frenzied horse he is riding will throw him now, and drag him by the reins along the shore until his body is bruised and wounded beyond all recognition, and he dies. This must be the moment when Hippolytus realizes how close he is to the edge – the tragic moment when beauty and terror meet. In the play by Euripides he cries,

“If I could only find another I

to look me in the eye

and see my tears and all that I am suffering!”

The Starns repeat the same image over and over and over again, because each repetition is different, and once is not enough.

“A lot of the work comes from accidental stuff,” said Doug. “Seeing it and liking it, rather than trying to cover it up,” said Mike. “It can be frightening, but that’s life,” said Doug. “Art is part of life,” said Mike. “It’s a real part – it’s the essence of life,” said Doug. The sheets of film are glued together and show the marks of their making. “There’s no reason to make it perfect,” says Doug. “We want to show the physical nature,” said Mike. “The physical nature,” said Doug. “Of everything, but in particular, Art,” said Mike.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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