Doug & Mike Starn

Mario Diacono Gallery

Since their move from Boston to New York last spring, Doug and Mike Starn have been working on a series that explores the possibilities of photographic materials and the tensions inherent in the medium. The work in this exhibition pushes photography to the edge of sculpture, examining the tension between the surface of the print and the photographic image. Four works based on a photograph of a classical statue of a horse and rider taken by Mike Starn at the National Museum of Athens last summer pit the physical material of photography against the formal qualities of the picture. The Starns have traded in their signature battered, fragmented, and taped arte povera-like images. Now their basic grounds are large sheets of transparent Ortho (polyester resin) film. In Horse and Rider of Artemision (large) (all works 1989), the Ortho film is combined with silicone, wood, steel, iron pipe, and metal clamps. On the sensitized resin, the image is isolated in a neutral, airy space. Only a pentimento of the Starns’ signature Scotch tape remains. Here the construction of the work suggests relief sculpture: the image is formed of overlapping sheets stretched on a framework of iron pipes, clamps, and tense strips of bent birch wood. Inspired by a 19th-century bentwood chair, the Starns designed this device to introduce a literal push-pull tension into the surfaces of the transparent sheets and to move the photographic image in the direction of sculpture.

Thus all four cropped and reconstructed images are based on a well-known Hellenistic sculpture, the Horse and Jockey of Artemision, dated to about the third century B.C.. Rendered as if galloping at full speed, the horse strains forward, the muscles of the head taut and strongly articulated. The animal’s excitement is reflected in the boy jockey’s face and in the dynamic posture of his body. Horse and Rider of Artemision (large), is cropped at the horse’s shoulder and segmented into three panels, with a break at the ear between the horse’s head and neck. The formal aspect of the Starns’ master negative is stressed by the lettering “KODAK TXP 6049” and “TXP 23,” shown on the black margin of the Ortho film.

Multiple Horse of Artemision is a contemporary reworking of the Starns’ 1985 series of photographs of their family’s horses, Luther and Jake. Here the Starns focus on the head of the Horse of Artemision in a grand, 13-foot-long installation of eight separate Ortho sheets pushpinned to the wall and ceiling. Folds appear in the corners of three panels, and the film itself is scratched, toned, and spotted, but tape is replaced by silicone, which divides each image of the horse—cropped near its snout and at the crest of its mane—into quadrants. The right portion of the composition is blackened to various shades of darkness, yet the horse is always visible. The balance of tones and textures and the minimalist play of black and white brings the twins’ formal instincts into play.

Double Horse with Pipe Clamp also separates the horse from the rider. In this extremely complex rearrangement of the horse’s face, seven separate sheets of Ortho film are superimposed and stretched over a convex backing. The images become doubled and tripled as eyes, snouts, and mouths overlap; formally, these sheets recall the Piet Mondrian paintings of the early ’40s that recapitulated the excitement of jazz music and New York City in geometric terms. The unsolved problem of whether the bronze horse and rider of Artemision actually belong together (both were discovered in the cargo of the same wrecked ship, though they were stored there separately) is alluded to by their separation in each work. The Starns are progressing into the ’90s in a manner that is art-historically intelligent and by no means facile.

Francine Koslow