The otherwordly art of Kahn & Selesnick

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There’s something about good art that takes your brain and tears it wide open, forcing a space big enough for the artist’s vision. This is how I think of the work of duo Kahn & Selesnick. If one comes at it with a small mind, expecting merely photography or painting or sculpture, you won’t know what to do. Perhaps best, it’s graspable by an untrained mind, so long as that mind is open.

I met the team in Nicholas Kahn’s cramped Hudson apartment, the studio where they do much of their work. The walls were lined with pieces, finished and not, and it felt small for the widescreen visions of them who work in it. Kahn and Richard Selesnick, both 49, were paired as freshman roommates at Washington University in St. Louis, studying art and interested in what Kahn calls “fictional documentary.” For Kahn, this arose from having a father who served as an army photographer during World War II. Selesnick was born in England and moved to America at a young age, though his time there seemed to have left an impact on his interests.

“In England they have these maps called ‘ordnance survey maps’ that always have antiquities of every kind marked on them,” Selesnick recounts, “and I used to love poring over these things and trying to walk to the various things where there’d be a funny mound, or a stone circle or a standing stone.” “Some of our first photos were faked miniature versions of stone circles,” adds Kahn. “We built these scenes to try and imagine that early Britain.”

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After graduating from college in the mid-‘80s – Selesnick in London, Kahn in New York and New Jersey – the two kept in touch, and eventually made plans to travel to an artists’ colony in Cape Cod, drawn by the bleak images of the dunes and sea, and begin collaborating. They took up their present mantle in 1988, and have been using it ever since. For the past four years, and intermittently before, they have been Hudson Valley residents, with Selesnick in Rhinebeck and Kahn in the studio in Hudson.

“I think a big part of what we do is about the landscape,” says Selesnick, “so being somewhere where the landscape inspires us is kind of helpful and important.” This is reflected in the nature of much of their work: photography. Most collections, often woven together as part of a story, contain photographs composed of five lateral shots – similar to a vintage panoramic camera – with foregrounded figures and dense, swirling backgrounds. But both note that what they do is much more similar to painting or sculpting than normal photography. As Selesnick puts it, “I think we were always interested in trying to create something that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”