Ode to Oakes

January 8, 2015   •   By Irene Hsiao

ARISTOTLE ENVISIONED a celestial universe of 55 crystalline spheres concentrically organized around the earth, each carrying a planet along its orbit by the angular momentum of the outermost ring, the Prime Mover, made of nothing but divine motion. Ptolemy advanced the notion of epicycles and deferents, the planets revolving like gears along a universe still cycling, like clockwork cranked on the axle of our planet. Copernicus took his last leave of the earth in 1543 looking on the pages of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, espousing a universe oriented on the sun, the heliocentrism that Galileo would suffer his final nine years under house arrest to defend. Against the linear progression of astronomy, artists Ryan and Trevor Oakes have returned the universe to the glory of spheres, centering it not merely on the earth, but on the eye.

The poet Aristophanes once described the original human body as a two-headed, eight-limbed sphere that perambulated by tumbling like a ball. The ease of their ambit made them bold, and they plotted revolution against the gods. As punishment, Zeus cleaved them in two, leaving them to wander biped, restlessly searching for their other halves. We have this first disobedience to blame for the woes of attraction and the alleged satisfaction of monogamy, and Aristophanes warns we best watch ourselves lest we again be split along the seams of our noses, losing our last axis of symmetry, to be left peg-legged hoppers hunting for a completion now made geometrically more improbable. This story was relayed by that same Plato who imagined us prisoners, nose to a wall on which the shadows of reality flicker, a dimension and a distance away from the ideal forms that we can only begin to comprehend in the light of the philosophical mind.

We cave dwellers have ever been intoxicated by representations, loving the illusions more than the original, the selfie more than the self. The conventions of art and mathematics have abstracted the world down to two dimensions, even while speculating about a universe of 10 to 26. The three in which we manipulate our meat bodies seem mundane and irrelevant within these complex structures, incommodious compared to the flat images and concepts we can file or frame. The labor of translating the many dimensions to a picture plane has been assisted by instruments such as the camera obscura, the camera lucida, the concave mirror. But the tools for representing what we see, contend the Oakes brothers, have always existed — they have existed within the eyes.


Vision is spherical, they aver, and thus they draw along the inner surface of a sphere, on a patented curved easel of their own devising. The flat rectangle that has become canonical as a surface for illustration is an error, presenting an image at an uneven distance from the eye. “In a Euclidean sense, the drawings are three dimensional, but from the vantage point of the eye, a sphere is more flat than flat,” Ryan expounds. “Every point on the paper is an equal distance from the eye, and every point on the page is experienced as a perpendicular ray directed at the eye.” As Erwin Panofsky pointed out in his 1927 treatise, Perspective as Symbolic Form, the distortion inherent in the picture plane has been understood since antiquity and commonly accepted, though it unbends the curve actually imprinted by light on the retina — itself a spherical surface for accumulating images.


Pioneers of a practical miracle, the Oakes twins’ method has been deemed by some the greatest innovation in perspectival representation since the Renaissance. Unflinchingly certain that their experience of binocular vision is universal, they say to the crowds that happen by their current outpost in the gardens of the Getty Center, “Hold your finger up in front of your face. Look beyond it. You see how it splits into two transparent images of itself?” This doubling of the image forms the basis of their technique. Placing the drawing surface so that only the non-dominant eye sees the object they are drawing, the dominant eye superimposes a ghostly image of the paper and pen onto the scene, allowing them to trace the world beyond it. As they finish a two-inch vertical portion of the scene, they slice it away, creating another blank edge on which to repeat the process. They have used the illusion created by one eye upon the other to trace the outline of landscapes far and near: the Flatiron Building in New York, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago, the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, the frozen plains of North Dakota.


Perspective organized around a finite number of vanishing points became conventional in the Renaissance. This simplified the problem of calculating angular perspective on a round surface representative of how light encounters the eye to a matter of trigonometry on a flat one — an abstract estimation of an impossible reckoning, all staged on the rectangular plane that has become a compact of culture, the way a map is an acceptable understanding of space. Nearly all our images reside in such spaces, the twins point out, using the perpendicular the upright body creates against its imagined horizon. These choices create a series of grammatical rules, understood through repetition, in a common visual language: parallels of roads or tracks converging on the horizon, objects that diminish in height along a linear slope and remain invisible behind objects closer on the path to the eye. “Uccello drafted a vase with seventeen vanishing points,” says Trevor, describing Paolo Uccello’s masterfully composed Perspective Study of a Chalice (1450). However, he continues, to the viewer in the world, vanishing points extend outward in every direction — figuratively piercing through a crystalline sphere enclosing the eye.

uccelloPerspective Study of a Chalice, Paolo Uccello

They insist it is not a performance, these hours they spend looking and drawing, sometimes just the two of them, sometimes amassing a ring of spectators. “It’s a meditation,” says Trevor, who more frequently commands what author Lawrence Weschler, their early champion and exegete, calls the “optical cockpit.” Trevor is accustomed to the stasis, the tedium of rendering line after line to grow the image a sliver of the world at a time. He is usually silent as he focuses on the minutiae of the scene, feet together, spine straight, right hand gripping the top of the tripod that forms the base of their easel, every particle of the anatomy made to orbit the still point of the left eye, fixed at the center of the sphere by a plaster cap suspended from the easel, all the motion of his outward-looking right eye translated into quick pen strokes by his left hand. “I combed over the plants,” or “I walked along the edge,” is how he describes the practice of setting lines and space in order. Ryan is more animated in his role as guide and interpreter to their onlookers, playfully flicking the plaster cap as he describes its function, cracking jokes and telling anecdotes as he transmits the details of the procedure. “We wanted to be trash collectors when we were little,” he tells a boy wearing a shirt that says in black and gray, “POET.” “We thought it would be so cool to ride hanging off the side of the truck.”

The Getty Central Garden, designed in 1992 by Robert Irwin and completed in 1997, is also a contradiction, a collision of nature and physics, the biological serving as structural material for the glorification of geometric principles. Bugleweed and bougainvillea, heliotropes and plane trees, angelicas and hellebores — something mythic and mathematical seems concealed in the very names of the 500 plants that fill in the landscape. At the center of the fountain, a manicured maze of azaleas; twining through the foliage, a dirt path that is wet and swept daily to remove footprints; beneath the plane trees, a lawless mass of leaves scatter, littering the view. Each day for 60 days in this garden, the twins use a brush to open up the round hollows in the footpath they excavated with an X-Acto knife to secure the feet of their easel to a stable position. Each evening they fill the hollows in again, erasing where they have been.


Trevor leaves the trees out of his first visual pass of the garden. He wants the trees bare so the architecture of the museum by Richard Meier shows through. In a drawing-in-progress of New York’s Central Park, the Oakes twins are making the time lapse from beginning to end of the piece explicit, capturing the passage of seasons from spring to winter in colored bands that read from right to left. But the result of their current drawing, their second of the Getty Garden, 31st in their concave series, will represent a time that has never existed. The shadows stand at 11 a.m. The trees say December 22. The fence absented from the succulents means 1997. And all the people sweeping by, sometimes thousands in a day, get not one mark. This is the reversal of entropy, a vision of an ideal time when late autumn and early winter and midmorning intersect: two in a garden making order.

Though their concave images have tended to feature architecture, which itself is the product of the cultural geometry that makes the mathematics of perspective plain, the foliage dominates the garden drawings, blurring the formal dimensional wizardry of their method. Of their first Getty drawing, Ryan explains that they used the half-shadow they placed over the buildings at 10:15 in combination with the organic textures of the tree branches to slow down the process of looking.

[The image] almost became harder to see. It didn’t reveal all its form rapidly. It takes a while to open. There were sections that were much more muddied and thickly merged with their surroundings, but then, over time, your eyes would pick out what one form was from another. You would find the edges of the form, even though they blended in at the first glance.

Architecture in a picture, as much as the rectangular plane around it, has become shorthand for space, depth, civilization. For the Oakes twins, the landscape is a way of seeing, a pace and an order more than a place.


What is it about the world reconceived through the human eye and hand that creates an act of wonder? All around us is detail; the drawings invite us to perceive it in a way that is almost tactile. The leafless branches lash the brick of Meier’s staunch edifice. The yuccas fan out, prickly and soft like shaving brushes. The whorls of each spoke of the umbrella-like planter that holds the bougainvillea stand out in the drawing like intricate braids — they are bound like sheaves of wheat to the leaves, which etch themselves into space, every edge incising into the white of the paper. The white will not remain. In recent drawings, they have taken to using concentric circles to indicate volume and shadow, in part to visualize their concept of the spheres in which light travels, and in part, they point out, to reference the rings of azaleas set in a perpetual ripple in Irwin’s fountain.

Reproduced on the flat plane of the page or surveyed on a rectangular screen, copies of their drawings seem distorted, the lines of the buildings bulging out rather than shooting upward. Only at a vantage point approximately 13 inches from the page, where Trevor’s left eye was stationed, do the lines reconcile, making the image as you could know it, looking out in all directions in a chimeric space between two and three dimensions. In an essay on a meteor seen blazing through the sky in 1623, Wilhelm Schickhardt, professor of oriental languages and mathematics and erstwhile woodcut artist and engraver, remarked:

I say that all lines, even the straightest, which do not stand directe contra pupillam [directly in front of the eye], or go through its axis necessarily appear somewhat bent. Nevertheless no painter believes this; this is why they paint the straight sides of a building with straight lines, even though according to the true art of perspective, this is incorrect.

The truth of perspective, the twins have discovered, is a set of impossible coordinates: a time other than the present plotted into a space one can only experience in the flesh.

Within the Oakes lore is the parable of the fly on the window: a Platonic insect they once encountered as a consequence of an intervening windshield in a routine expedition by motor vehicle. Just three years old, the boys in the back seat observed the fly with the clinical coolness of youth, not yet indoctrinated in the principles of vanitas so favored by Dutch still lifes. Instead, they abstracted the blot into an epiphany on sight, discovering that they could double its image by looking beyond it to the landscape whipping by and wondering why they could not see the fly and the fields beyond the glass in focus all at once.

They never intended to pursue realism; it was a consequence of their experiments in sight. “Our art is primarily about the act of looking, as opposed to the thing that’s being looked at,” they say. “The first step in representation is happening on the retina of a single eye,” says Trevor. “Combining two retinas to get stereo depth and an understanding of three-dimensional space around you is a giant achievement” — limited to humans and a few other species. “The brain evolved to see a two-dimensional image before it could ever see three dimensions,” adds Ryan. Perhaps modernity has been written in the code of the flat rectangular plane, the shadows of forms prevailing through an appeal to the elegance of the mind over the messier need for a world of dimension. The picture plane in the Renaissance was conceived as a window through which one could see the world. However, the picture as an object has created the deceptive practice of looking at the window itself. In fact, perspective comes from the Latin for seeing through — to see the world, not the glass wall that keeps us from it. Though the astonishing accuracy of their drawings may seduce us, it is rather the way that human eyes see, physically and culturally, that is the true object of the apparent perfection of the images they create. The Oakes twins invite us to see the wall and the world beyond together, creating drawings that reveal human experience to the eyes.


The Oakes twins will be drawing in the Getty Museum’s Central Garden from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays, through January 21.

Unless indicated, all images by Ryan and Trevor Oakes.


Irene Hsiao is a writer and dancer. Her essays and poems have appeared in, among others, Cambridge Quarterly, Victorian Poetry, and SF Weekly. Her book of photography and text, Letter from Taipei, was published in 2014.