In conducting experiments with afterimages, blind spots, and color perception, scientists historically used the subject most readily at hand — themselves. Optic pain, compromised vision, and even blindness were not uncommon consequences. These are serious side effects, but as the art historian Jonathan Crary has pointed out in his writings on visual culture, the research was exhilarating. Experimenting with the faculties of the human eye seems to have been an addictive, if ruinous, pleasure.
The New York-based artist duo Ryan and Trevor Oakes might be considered the contemporary version of such devoted inquiry. Collaborators and identical twins, the artists’ practice stems from an exacting curiosity about how we see, and how to best represent our vision.
The twins, now 26, trace their interest in binocular vision to a childhood car ride, but began their more rigorous exploration in 2002. They were especially intrigued by double vision, a phenomenon more easily demonstrated than described: hold a pen in front of your face and look at this page beyond the pen — the pen doubles; look at the pen, and these words double. Intrigued by this shadow image, the brothers practiced and eventually mastered the art of splitting their sight at will. They taught their eyes to resist acting in concert, such that without much effort (and entirely painlessly), one eye sees foreground and the other background. Then they began to draw.
Of course, a regular easel was inadequate, so the brothers designed and built a custom easel grid, which instead of a single sheet of paper accommodates horizontal strips of paper, some straight and others curved at the ends. When the drawing is complete, the strips are gathered and taped to create a convex cup shape, in a curve that exactly mimics the contour of the human eye.
In preparing to draw, Trevor, the artist who works the easel, first trains his eyes on the landscape. Allowing his view of pen and paper to split, he begins sketching in a two-inch-wide section along the right edge of the paper. He doesn’t look from scene to paper and back again, but at both simultaneously — he is effectively looking through the paper. (It helps to imagine the activity not as drawing per se, but something more like three-dimensional tracing.) After completing one two-inch section from top to bottom, Trevor cuts it away and, working right to left, begins the next two-inch strip. His head must be precisely stabilized throughout, a problem the twins solved by attaching a snug plaster hat molded on a swimming cap to the easel. The artists have only had the time and resources to build one easel, and it is so exactly calibrated to the dimensions of Trevor’s left pupil and the crown of his head that even Ryan, his identical twin, finds it useless.
The process is as physically grueling as it sounds. One of the Oakes brothers’ most challenging drawings, of Chicago’s Millennium Park, required 15 exhausting 10-hour days to render an image just 20 by 18 inches. Chicago Panel (Bean) (2008), has a stunning and obsessive veracity — each line of the tiled plaza, each building cornice, each windowpane, even the curved reflection in Anish Kapoor’s landmark Cloud Gate, is exactly reproduced. The result is how Millennium Park might appear if it were reflected in the curved head of a pin.
Once the drawing is assembled as a concave form, the optimal viewing position is at the imaginary center of the paper’s curve — exactly the place where Trevor’s eyes were positioned. But this is too close for exhibition purposes, so the artists enlarge the drawings, all the better to see their fantastic detail.
In Western culture linear perspective is the dominant mode of depicting visual space, but the Oakes brothers consider this more or less happenstance; other modes might have prevailed. In fact, after viewing photographs of the Lascaux cave drawings, which do not use the familiar conventions of linear perspective, the brothers began to speculate that early man routinely split his vision. The artists cite as more recent influences David Hockney’s writings on perspective, Robert Irwin’s use of reflective materials, and J.M.W. Turner’s reference to magnetic field imagery to capture the turbulence of stormy landscapes.
The next big project? First, the twins agree, they’ll try their hand at color, beginning with the most simple of forms, an ocean horizon. Ryan confesses he’d like to lug the easel to an enticing viewpoint on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, where a set of telephone poles plunges sharply down a ravine, and Trevor mentions the theoretical appeal of expanding their easel to accommodate 360-degree panoramas. The idea provocatively presses the relationship between drawing and sight, for such panoramic drawings would not only mimic the shape of the human eye, but uncannily postulate an eye that can see in all directions at once — a skill the brothers are no doubt working on.
Have No Narrow Perspectives (2009), an etched stainless steel version of Ryan and Trevor Oakes’s drawing of Millennium Park, is on display in the park through June 1.