Diane Arbus, "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967" via Wikipedia

Diane Arbus, “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967” (via Wikipedia)

CHICAGO — Twins are fascinating. Identical twins embody the visual doubling of a single human, which often calls to mind ideas of cloning. The psychic component of twins suggests that one can complete the other’s thoughts, that they feel the same thing and that, in effect, they are one single human being in two separate bodies. In the 1975 Disney film Escape to Witch Mountain, two orphaned twins are abducted and forced to live in a magical mansion. The two realize that through their shared psychic powers, they can make marionettes — normally mere inanimate objects, child’s toys — move and dance. Though the twins in this film are not identical or the same sex, together they conjure the eeriness of twins, especially child twins like the Gradys in the horror film The Shining (1980), which was released only a few years later. Twins occupy a significant space in the pop culture imagination — but what about in the realm of visual art?

Recently in Lake Forest, a suburb north of Chicago, two identical twins named Paul and Phil Gayter presented an exhibition called Twinism (closed March 15 at Re-Invent Gallery) in which they attempted to reflect their “uncanny twin connectedness” through the titular concept that they coined.  Though the exhibition has closed, there’s a video over on Chicago Tribune that adequately displays their work. The concept of “twinism” is quite simple, actually: One twin paints one side of a single canvas, and then covers it up, leaving the other side blank and exposed. Twin number two enters, and paints the other side without looking at what his brother made. The resulting single painting forms a sort of single thought, moment or concept that the twins unknowingly shared as they painted.

The majority of the Gatyers’ paintings are abstract and quite random. In one piece, one twin paints letters of their date of birth, and the other side depicts a single hand. In another, the text “SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICIOUS” appears on one side, and the other is half a red-and-yellow-rayed sun with the text “DAY” in the middle. Says Phil Gayter of this painting: “I think that they are both positive words . . . so have a supercalifragilidocious day . . .”

Twinism paintings by Paul and Phil Gayter via twinsonline.org.uk

Twinism paintings by Paul and Phil Gayter via twinsonline.org.uk

The paintings themselves are nothing to get excited about, but the idea of twins making art is in itself quite compelling, and is connected to a history of twins making singular works of art together.

The Singh Twins created as a single-identity artist-duo with multiple cultural identities — English, Indian and Sikh. The sisters call themselves “twindividuals,” and they also always dress alike. They paint both individually and collaboratively, but they always share the credit, according to The Guardian. Through their intricate paintings, the two reveal a comingled interest in pop culture pleasures such as the cult of celebrity, materialism, and politics such as the clash of British and Indian cultures. They began working in the tradition of Indian miniatures, and have since expanded to larger-scale works.

Singh Twins, "Marilyn Monroe: Facets of Femininity Series," via Wallery

Singh Twins, “Marilyn Monroe: Facets of Femininity Series,” via Wallery

Similarly, identical twin brothers Mike and Doug Starn (the Starn twins) create ultra-detailed photo-collages, sculpture, and site-specific projects to investigate chaos, interconnectedness and time. Their “Attracted to Light” series zooms in on tiny bugs, magnifying them to larger-than-life size through the use of a telephoto lens. The two work together as a collaborative twin team, and it is this complete mind-meld that brings forth the distinctness of their art.

In a story for the Washington Post by Paul Richard, a reporter and a twin himself, he notes that what sets the Starns apart: heir uncanny nature of making art as one singular being. Recalling a run-in with the Starn twins, he writes:

“Once I met the Starn twins. Doug said: “From kindergarten on they put us in separate classrooms.” Mike finished: “But it didn’t help.” Doug said: “We know twins who get really angry at us because we are such friends.”

Starn Twins, "Attracted to Light 1"

Starn Twins, “Attracted to Light 1”

But not every twin collaborative team can bring forth this type of work. The uncanny twin connectedness is not as apparent in the works by Paul and Phil Gayter, but perhaps in time their twinned art-making mind-meld may develop moreso over time, and they will eventually drop the “twinism” one-liner and start making work together as a single being. Though the Gayter twins do share a childhood past and an outwardly identical appearance, they may not be able to fully finish each other’s thoughts, visions and creative moments that give twins the creep or uncanny vibe — not just visually, but in creative collaboration. If they do, perhaps they, too, can occupy a twinned space normally reserved for the horror film genre, which portrays the uncanny in a way that only Diane Arbus’ young twin girls come close to embodying. It is perhaps this childhood connection that makes the uncanny grown-up twinning possible; if not, all we have is twinism, a meek attempt at completing the thoughts of someone whose thoughts one should already know before they are even spoken out loud.

Twinism closed March 15 at Re-Invent Gallery (202 Wisconsin Avenue, Lake Forest, Illinois).

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

4 replies on “Uncanny Twinism: Exploring Twins in Visual Art”

  1. Check out the twins Alan and Michael Fleming: http://spatialinterventions.com/

    Great artists who have been making art since they were kids. We featured them at Cindy Rucker Gallery back in February and they performed during the New Ideas Festival this year as well.

  2. Speaking as a twin, the shared childhood is not an explanation for “uncanny grown-up twinning”. There’s a closeness to your twin that is like no other relationship and is possibly inexplicable to an “un-twin”. That being said, collaborating creatively with your twin is not as “single being”. It’s fun (as exemplified by the Gayters!) but it is the work of two people. (I did a photo work with my twin and, had I done it myself, it would have been a distinctly different work.) I do like the exhibit idea of the Gayters, especially the happy photo of two of them with their “twinism” painting!

  3. I’m in the process of photographing twins for a show and this article has given me some great ideas (thanks!). Growing up around twins, I’ve always seen them as distinctly different yet from the outside we want to funnel them into one as a result of their identical appearance. Always seemed strange to me.

  4. I would have been interested to see street art included. With How & Nosm, Os Gemeos, and Skewville, I find it fascinating that these twins create such seamless, large murals together.

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