New York

Mike And Doug Starn

57 STUX + Haller Gallery

Mike and Doug Starn subject photographic prints to all manner of process-oriented violation, and, in so doing, turn the potentially multiple image into a unique object. Instead of granting photography a conditional, ontological specificity as a direct transcription of reality, the Starns foreground the medium’s constituent material qualities, reminding us that the photograph is not a transparent window on the world. In support of this primary conceit, they mobilize an array of formal devices. Their work at the Stux Gallery showed ample wizardry. A fractured image entitled Plant #1, 1988, is punctuated with several mat-finished inserts; the Starns play these velvety details off the otherwise glossy surface, palpably heightening the photograph’s physicality. The photographic monochrome is their most brilliant conceit. Sol, 1988, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, dispenses with every detail by which we customarily recognize a photograph as such. What remains is a solid white grid of chemically exposed paper.

In several of the Starns’ most effective works, secondary iconographic and formal concerns cue the overdetermined exchange between art and photography that lends tension to these primary manipulations. As probably the most reproduced icon in Western culture, the Mona Lisa lends resonance to the photographic violations to which it is subjected, as in Large Mona with Plexi, 1985–88. In weaker pieces, the relationship between primary formal manipulations and secondary contents seems arbitrary and underrealized. Lack of Compassion Series, 1988, which occupied the entire back room at the Castelli Gallery, suggests that conceptual discrimination on the part of the artists is in short supply. A series of headshots of people who have been martyred, the piece includes images of John the Baptist, Steven Biko, Chief Joseph, and 37 others, mounted on plain wooden planks and propped against the wall, near a larger photograph of the corpses of Holocaust victims. Seldom has sentimentality been taken to such a suffocating extreme.

The wall-sized, multipaneled piece entitled Crucifixion, 1988, suggests that a similar lack of discrimination on a formal level can hamper even a clever iconographic conceit. Based on a 17th-century painting by Philippe de Champaigne, the piece plays photography’s putative documentary status off the paradoxical notion of a photographed Christ. The witty charge, however, is diffused by a gratuitously arty detailing of tape, wire, ribbon, and wood. Similarly, the frames, though they hold out the possibility of another layer of conceptual play, tend to detract from the ephemerality of the fragmented and reassembled photos.

The recent Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art inadvertently burlesqued the awkward reciprocity between art and photography. The line that separates the garden variety snapshot from the art photograph proved elusive, and the show’s most potent theme became the curator’s inability to domesticate Winogrand’s vérité-style production as art. The Starns exacerbate photography’s uneasy relationship to art, but from an antithetical vantage. If Winogrand’s feverish impulse to photograph defies the designation “art,” the Starns seem almost wholly concerned with darkroom manipulations and the register of the artist’s hand. Though their sensitive photographic manipulations at times generate real resonance, increasingly these investigations are put to the service of secondary, even sophomoric iconographic and formal impulses.

Jack Bankowsky