May 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Robert Irwin’s virtuoso ‘unlight’ light art

In a body of work from 2018, artist Robert Irwin, an originator in the 1960s of the distinctive genre known as Light and Space art, did something simple but surprising: He switched off the lights in his art.

Irwin has been using fluorescent lights in his work for many years. The so-called “unlights,” however, pull the plug on them.

What got left behind is remarkable. See for yourself at Kayne Griffin, where five riveting examples of Irwin’s “unlights” are on view — by appointment with social distancing protocols and face masks required.

Each wall relief is composed from 15 ordinary, 6-foot electrical fixtures in white enamel, the kind you might get at a big box store. They are installed vertically side by side but without any wiring. No juice is running to the 12, 16 or 20 fluorescent tubes that are set in place.

Robert Irwin’s “unlights” are made from fluorescent tubes wrapped in colored gels and electrical tape

(Kayne Griffin)

Think of stripe paintings by artists like Gene Davis or Bridget Riley, except three-dimensional and made from hardware instead of acrylic and canvas.

The tubes are wrapped with colored gels or lined with precise strips of electrical tape, some matte and some shiny. “Mozambique” is mostly in shades of green, while “Balboa” is greens and blues. “Mesquite” features a metallic gold with black and white.

In the narrow vertical spaces between fixtures, the gallery wall is left exposed. Most of the visible wall is white, but some is painted gray in various shades. The flat side or narrow edge of a fixture might also be painted gray or black — or, in one instance, a dark navy blue. Most of the light fixtures accommodate a single tube but some feature two and a few are blank. The human scale makes each work approachable.

What risks being a gimmick — a master’s light art without the light — turns out to be unexpectedly gorgeous and deeply absorbing.

Your eye sees electrical fixtures and glass tubes, and your mind naturally expects them to light up. When they do not, anxiety rises. Is something wrong?

Nope. Everything is just right. In fact, you slowly start noticing the ambient light that is all around them.

Robert Irwin's "Mesquite," 2018.

Robert Irwin‘s “Mesquite,” 2018.

(Pablo Mason)

Colors glow. Reflections sparkle. Movement out on the gallery patio makes interrupted light indoors flicker.

The fixtures cast shadows — or are those lines and rectangles gray paint, not cast shadows? Or shadows cast on gray paint, changing dimensions imperceptibly as daylight moves? Is the gray color flat, or is it atmospheric? Matte gels absorb light and soften the space the tube occupies, while shiny gels are vivacious and energetic.

Color across the visual field is stable but not static.

In the double-fixture at the center of one work, a pair of side-by-side tubes wrapped in black is lined with white tape and turned slightly inward. The result is an illusion of impossibly deep space, which draws in your perception through a narrow slit.

The center fixture of another reverses the equation, which yields an optical swelling of space that pushes outward. The placement of electrical tape can warp visual space.

One practical angle of the “unlights” even engenders a smile. These light bulbs will never burn out, unlike a Minimalist fluorescent sculpture by Dan Flavin, or even Irwin’s own earlier work. Technology moves on, so someday those wired fluorescent sculptures will be obsolete — but here it will not matter one bit. Here it is the viewer, not the art, that needs to be plugged in.

Robert Irwin's "Muscle Shoals," 2018.

Robert Irwin‘s “Muscle Shoals,” 2018.

(Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

The “unlights” sharpen perception to a keen edge, an experience of acuity that blissfully lingers long after you leave the show. On the gallery checklist, the materials that Irwin employed is revealing. Instead of fixtures, tubes, gels and tape, these works are identified as being made from “shadow + reflection + color.”

This is virtuoso Light and Space art. Orchestrated when Irwin reached the ripe age of 90, such command is to be expected. Unplugged “unlights” have an inescapable elegiac quality, but even that is more incandescent than mournful. In these dark times, they light up the room.

Robert Irwin

Where: Kayne Griffin, 1201 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.

When: Through Feb 27, by appointment

Info: (310) 586-6886, www.kaynegriffin.com