“We were just trying some lubes,” Allie Kaplan said cheerily when I showed up out of breath to the Museum of Sex in New York on a recent afternoon to meet her and her identical 23-year-old twin sister Lexi, the other half of artist duo known to Instagram as the Kaplan Twins. Had I checked their joint account just a moment before, I would have been less worried about being 10 minutes late: The pair had already explored and documented enough of the museum’s gift shop—and its display of blue raspberry and piña colada lubes—to proclaim to their 115,000 followers that it was their “happy place.”
They’d also been admiring matching sets of rainbow pride-striped pasties, but abandoned those pursuits in favor of heading straight into the museum. I’d planned to accompany them to the “Female Gaze” exhibition, given that, lately, they’ve been painting exclusively nude female celebrities, but the twins decided they’d “definitely” like to tour the entire museum, which they’d been wanting to go to, they proclaimed, for “forever.”
“We have time,” they said simultaneously.
They often speak in chorus. The many instances of twinned speech that followed included “just us,” when I asked if they have any other siblings; “our entire lives,” when I asked how long they’ve been making art; “be your own person,” when they recalled the advice they’d received after deciding to study studio art at New York University; and “the female body,” which they’re most attracted to when it comes to painting.
Just like their voices, Lexi and Allie are virtually indistinguishable; the only way I could tell their Olsens-like long blonde hair and five-foot frames apart was because one wore a studded rhinestone Hello Kitty choker (Allie), and the other had sunglasses propped on her head (Lexi). Otherwise, both were wearing white sneakers with paint-spattered, light-washed jean jackets.
By now, it probably has struck you that the Kaplans can be cloyingly—and annoyingly—provocative. Maybe more annoyingly, it’s working. Even though they proclaim that “we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” the twins, who’ve carefully engineered their shared presentation down to the matching text on the backs of their matching jackets (“make me famous”), were in town to talk to New York galleries seeking to represent them on the east coast. “Make Me Famous” also happened to be the title of their show last month at De Re Gallery in Los Angeles, who not only agreed to represent the twins at just 23 years old, but who also gave them their first major “solo” exhibition, featuring life-size, photorealistic oil paintings of nude celebrities like Amber Rose, Emily Ratajkowski, Vanessa Hudgens, and Kim Kardashian.
Among those nudes portrayed were the Kaplans themselves. In their second large body of work since graduating in 2015, the Kaplans have moved on from painting highly explicit stills from leaked sex tapes—their portrait of Kim Kardashian was bought by PornHub, and hangs in their office—and have now started depicting leaked nude selfies, sourced from hacks like the Fappening. In other words, the twins are currently profiting off of images that Jennifer Lawrence, who herself was victimized by the hacks (which have targeted almost exclusively women), has called a “sex crime.”
The twins have another word for it, though. The series, they say, is instead all about “sexploitation”—an effort to re-frame their work as a commentary on pop culture and its fascination with social media, intimacy, and sex. When I asked if they thought they were objectifying the women they’ve most recently painted, Allie simply said, “I think we’re objectifying ourselves, too.”
From there the twins ran down what sounded like a checklist of buzzwords—”reclaiming,” “changing the gaze,” “more empowering,” were just some of the phrases they called out—but their message seems to be this: There’s nothing wrong with taking a photo of yourself and sending it to someone because you think you look great—a point they’ve chosen to illustrate exclusively with celebrities they believe would stand by that message, like Ratajkowski, who studied fine art and is a vocal advocate of body positivity, and Rose, whose annual Slut Walk aims to end rape culture by reclaiming some of its tropes along the way. There’s a reason Jennifer Lawrence isn’t included among the batch. “Why would we put [those photos] back out there in the world if she’s super upset by them?” Lexi asked.
The Kaplans have not always made made art together even though they’ve both been absorbed in it since childhood in New Jersey, and later helped each other finish assignments while studying at N.Y.U. But they eventually embraced the fact that they always had the same ideas and teamed up in their senior year, later making a post-graduation move to L.A. to pursue art full-time. (Their first studio was a room in the basement of their boyfriends’ apartment as their studio.) (Yes, they were dating two boys who lived together.)
Sick of the New York art world’s snobbishness, they ended up selling the paintings on Instagram, preferring to avoid the conventional gallery route, which they’d gotten a taste of while Lexi worked at the New Museum for a year, as Allie interned at Chelsea’s Paul Kasmin Gallery and Christie’s, the latter of which “sucked the life out of” her. (They initially turned down De Re when the gallery wanted to represent them a year ago.)
Part of their determination to circumvent the system is because they know the art world, like the rest of the world, perceives them to be simply “cute, young girls.” Long inspired by the artist Lynda Benglis’s famous 1974 Artforum ad, which featured Benglis nude and grasping a giant dildo to promote one of her exhibitions (it was made in protest of women’s underrepresentation in the art world), the Kaplans have long put themselves at the center of their work. They’re just toying, really, with the idea that “twins are obviously a fantasy for people.”
It’s not exactly a second coming of Benglis, but the Kaplans have learned to start posing provocatively with Instagrams of their nude paintings—not only because doing so can block Instagram’s censorship algorithm, but also because the photos often get more engagement. A series of Instagrams of the twins with stuffed animals they claimed to have slept with quickly sold out, at $333 a piece.
The buyers, all of them men, may have mistaken the intent behind the Kaplans’ self-aware “sexploitation” art, though. “I’m sure people bought them for some sort of fetish, but that’s what we’re commenting on and what we’re playing into, and we can’t control that,” Allie said. “I don’t think it’s for us to control how people react to it. I think it’s only for us to control our narrative and the way we’re putting it out there.”
“I think there are actually more misconceptions about us than the work,” Allie went on. “The work kind of speaks for itself.” Here, I witnessed the twins’ first disagreement, when Lexi protested that she doesn’t think it does. “You can disagree with that, that’s fine,” Allie said. “There’s so many layers, and people are so quick to judge.”
And nowhere are they more quick to judge than on Instagram, where the pair at times get comments attacking them for being naked, ugly, untalented, or simply too comfortably sexual. For the most part, though, the comments are supportive, and their followers count has only kept on growing, making the pair more reliant than ever on the platform, which they don’t seem to think will wane in popularity any time soon.
“My dad said that about Facebook like, 10 years ago,” Lexi said matter of factly, making her descent to the gift shop to purchase her pasties and TSA-sized bottle of strawberry lube. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
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