The photo collages made jointly by identical twins Doug and Mike Starn (American b. 1961) created a sensation at the 1987 Whitney Biennial, which led to show an equally well-received show at Leo Castelli in 1988.
The Starns had been assembling altering, adapting, and appropriating photographs, many vintage, together since the age of 13. They refused to discuss their work in terms of individual contributions, thus creating an attribution issue that reinforced the sense of age and loss. To underscore their corporate identity, they made numerous self-portraits, in which it is impossible to differentiate between the two.
Creased, worn, faded, and held together with Scotch tape the Starns’ fictive keepsakes and artifacts are someone else’s memories created with archaic media. The inward-turning melancholy and fragility are utterly unlike the self-aggrandizing and florid Neo Expressionism or the impersonal, hard abstraction that preceded them.
They were also of their times. The shared the decade’s taste for outsized scale. Along Daguerre Julia Margaret Cameron and Edward Muybridge, the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, the animated films of the Brothers Quay and David Lynch’s Eraserhead were also influences. The inclusion of Twins in their official moniker, as well as the gauzy layering and romanticism of the Cocteau Twins comes to mind as well (the cover photo of Treasure, released in1984, shares many characteristics with the Starns’ work). The 1980s was also the decade of chemically-induced or “distressed” faux-vintage fabrics and materials, meaning the retrospection and nostalgia of the Starn Twins is in some way the most contemporary aspect of their art.
At first, I didn’t realize that the stuffed animals had a monstrous quality. It took me a while to see it. When I first started buying craft objects it was because they were, obviously, gifts. I was interested in gift-giving. Artists were going on about this in the art world at the time-the artwork, as gift, was supposed to be an escape from the commodification of art. So I began buying things that I recognized were made by hand. My assumption was that they were meant to be given away-most craft objects are generally made, specifically, to be gifts. The handmade objects I found in thrift stores were, most likely, not sold. I started hoarding them; I had never really looked at dolls or stuffed animals closely before. I became interested in their style-the proportions of them, their features. That’s when I realized that they were monstrosities. But people are not programmed to recognize that fact-they just see them as generically human. Such objects have signifiers of cuteness-big eyes, big heads, baby proportions. You can empathize with those aspects of them. But when I blew them up to human scale in paintings they were not so cute anymore; if you saw something like that walking down the street, you’d go in the other direction. I became interested in toys as sculpture. But it’s almost impossible to present them that way, because everybody experiences them symbolically. That’s what led to my interest in repressed memory syndrome and the fear of child abuse. This wasn’t my idea-I was informed by my viewers that this is what my works were about. I learn a lot from what my audience tells me about what I do.
From Glenn O’Brien, “Mike Kelley” Interview (2008)
Koloman Moser, Ver Sacrum,
Josef-Maria Olbrich, Wiener Secession, 1897, Vienna.
Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Hand on Chest, 1917.
Josef-Maria Olbrich, Hochzeitstürm, Künstlerkolonie, Darmstadt, 1901
Gustav Klimt, 1899, (Destroyed
Josef Hoffmann (Wiener Werkstätte, Brooch, 1912.
Der Zeit ihre Kunst,
Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit.
Art History and Visual Culture Blog