INTERVIEW by MATTHEW KITCHEN |BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by ZACK DeZON
Sure, we know (hopefully) that appreciating visual art is almost entirely dependent on your ability to see, but the Oakes Twins, Ryan and Trevor, 29, have taken this concept strides further. Since moving to New York for art school at 18, they’ve focused their interests and endeavors not on the ability to see, but the act of looking. They observed their own vision, explored light and depth and space, and found a way to intricately depict size, scope, scale, and the third dimension into their drawings. On top of being, and we apologize for the pun, double visionaries, the brothers are business partners and best friends. Regardless of who’s older (because not even they know) the boys still abide by their grandfather’s motto: “When family gets together, family does great things.”
Some people might confuse your concepts of three-dimensional art with their nostalgia for Magic Eye puzzles. How are you exploring 3-D in new ways?
Trevor: Magic Eyes are kind of the opposite of what we do. We start by looking at something that’s already behind the page. Then one eye passes that image through the visual cortex and the other eye plots it onto the paper. So we grab the background world and bring it onto the page versus something on the page pushing into the background.
And how did you arrive at that?
Trevor: That concept grew out of a series of observations that took place over four years. We started noticing little idiosyncrasies of the visual field, like how looking out into the world it seems as if you’re looking at one unbroken windshield of view. But if you pay attention, you can see the profile of your nose blocking a good portion on both the far left and far right sides. And using both eyes the nose appears transparent. Noticing that was one of the first steps into thinking about what it actually meant to have two eyes and how vision was constructed and how visual space, which we take for granted, was built.
Maybe a year later we noticed the doubling phenomenon that occurs because we see with two eyes. Anytime you’re looking past an object in the foreground to focus in the background, the foreground will divide into two images of itself. Try holding a finger in front of you, but don’t look at your finger, look at me. See how your finger divides into two images and becomes transparent?
[trying it] Yeah, I can see straight through to you.
Trevor: Right, the transparency happens because while one eye sees your finger the other eye is filling in the background information behind your finger and those two images are superimposed in the same location in your visual cortex. That phenomenon says a lot about vision, but it took another couple years to realize we could use that transparent doubling phenomenon to create realistic drawings. Instead of looking past your finger, we look past a pen into the distance, which causes the pen to optically split into a similar transparent double image. By placing one image of the split pen onto a sheet of paper we are able to preceive the other image to be floating off to the side of the paper, hovering in midair over-top of the background scene. That floating pen tip can be used to trace the objects that appear in the distance onto the paper and capture their visual proportions with great accuracy. To keep ours eyes and the paper still while carrying out this “looking and tracing technique,” we built a spherical easel and attached head stabilizer which holds that left eye at the center of the sphere.
That all seems oddly scientific…
Ryan: It was very much observational. We asked, “What is it like to see? If we’re pursuing visual art, what are the characteristics that make visual art successful? How do these visual rules have weight?” Then, intuiting it has to do with the act of looking and receiving an image into your mental process. If those two can be aligned or synchronized, that’s where harmonious compositions come from. Everything about visual art is integrally tied to the act of looking, so we just considered, very closely, the act of looking itself; the experience of vision.
Now that you’ve explored depth and dimensions, how do you evolve your concept?
Ryan: By continuing to have time to make more and more images and explore the act of image making and the act of translating the experience of looking. Any object or space you see when you wake up is a candidate for something that can be drawn, but what’s omnipresent through that experience is the act of looking and processing light rays and we want to make that aspect of looking become palpably part of the artwork.
Trevor: The evolution is to add light to the form that’s defined. Drawing edges is only depicting form with no mention of the light and shadow that are filling the volume of the space. Adding shading is a way of shifting to actual light filling the volume and adding color even more so is a way of talking specifically about light, not just about form.
How do you guys, as both twins and artists, compliment one another?
Ryan: In the beginning, even with the line work, it was really helpful to have two people there to see the scene. When you’re doing this optical viewing technique you have one eye that’s viewing the intricate details of the scene, like tiny air conditioners and pipes off in the distance, while the other eye is blocked by a blurry half-ghostlike sheet of paper and a fuzzy pen. You’re trying to process the scene with one eye, process the pen line with the other, and balance the two. It’s very tricky. So we’d both stand there for each other and scrutinize the scene and develop the rendering as a team.
Trevor: It’s interesting to realize what it would be like to not have a twin, and the difficulty in establishing that level of trust with another human being. I so take for granted that anything Ryan does is in keeping my interest in mind. Same with me. I would never be working behind his back making sure more of the chips end up in my pile.
And how do you as evolving artists define your success?
Ryan: We’re very lucky to be able to spend 100 percent of our time making art and have that be our work day to day. You go to bed, you wake up, that’s what we’re putting our attention and focus toward without any other distractions besides the fact that life kicks in and you have to manage living in New York City and all that. But that’s reality for anyone. In terms of what counts as successful, you’re always in a state of becoming. If someone sits back and thinks, “Well, I’ve done it,” they invite the possibility of becoming stagnant or missing the next beat. I feel like we’re just getting started with our goals and wishes for a successful trajectory.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to that trajectory?
Trevor: Sharing on the internet is one of the best ways to get the word out, of course. So many artists are aiming their practice toward the Chelsea galleries – we have a show there now and we see how many people see it per day. Sixty. Maybe eighty? Granted some are writers and hopefully they’ll review them for magazines, but that’s still not many people being influenced. The art world is pretty small, but documenting and sharing our work and the work of other artists so that kids and high school students across Middle America can access it and be inspired by it and incorporate it into their picture of what life is would be a positive way of bringing cultural arts to the forefront.