It could only have happened where it happened—on the periphery.” In speaking about the life and work of Louisville artist Stephen Irwin, curator Julien Robson invites the idea that there remains a type of art-making that is not only deaf to the siren song of New York, but in fact flourishes for being so.
Irwin, who passed away this winter at the age of 51, was born in Vine Grove, Kentucky, and spent most of his adult life in Louisville. Not an outsider artist in any traditional sense—he was represented and shown in New York by the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, and his work has been shown internationally—he is, anachronistically, one of the very few artists in his generation whose success never spawned a big career move to a big art city. Irwin’s pieces beat with the kind of tender heart that recalls a sad, sublime lyricism embedded most notably in Southern writing and music, and in thinking of the work of another Louisville resident, musician Will Oldham, one feels a certain psychic similarity. There is, within each artist, the sense that they could only exist in this strange world, each turning inward toward their own creative capacity, and outward toward the particularities of the American South’s artifact and landscape.
“In Louisville, Irwin had the space and time to think about what he was doing,” says Robson. “You don’t have that in New York.” Robson, who is the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, met Stephen in 2000 when he moved to Louisville to become the first Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum. “I was met by a community of Louisville artists waiting with bated breath for a contemporary curator,” says Robson of his arrival. “Stephen was very interested in having critical discussions about art. He was doing work that was very decorative, almost designed. I tried to toughen him up a little bit.” Chris Radtke, a Louisville artist and studio mate of Irwin’s, recalls these conversations as catalytic entities that allowed Irwin to progress to more difficult work. “When we first encountered Julien, he was very direct with us. I remember, in one of his conversations with Stephen, he said: ‘you make beautiful drawings, but you need to push this further. Use your materials to push past this.’ It was a turning point for both of us.”
One of the hallmark pieces indicative of this change in Irwin’s work is “Skin Diary”(2004). Irwin suffered from heart problems and had many surgeries before he passed. A visual treatise on the aesthetic logic of the human body, the installation, which consists predominantly of 31 abstract ink drawings made on Sekishu Japanese paper, was started after Irwin had open heart surgery. “When he started drawing, he was just covered with bruises all over his body,” says Dean Holdiman, who was Irwin’s boyfriend up until his death. “So he started drawing his bruises. When he installed the drawings, he hung each of them, layered, on long, thin pins. And he installed a ceiling fan that was reversed to blow up instead of down. As you walked into the room, the motion your body created would cause the drawings to lift and pull away form the wall.” An analogue to the mechanized complexities of the human from, the work recalls the act of assisted breathing, and delves into the idea of bruises and wounds as the paint our bodies use to both remember and reify pain.
Irwin’s most enchanting body of work is arguably a series of images culled from vintage porn magazines, which the artist carefully abraded with steel wool until the figures within each image became a ghostly apparition. If pornography becomes a garish cartoon of sex, Irwin’s works stripped away the falsity and brutality of the genre, and brought out the semblance of true connection in which significant sex conjures. “Pornography lacks desire because it’s very crude and material, and very literal,” says Robson. “There’s nothing explicit at all in Irwin’s work, yet he was somehow capable of extracting desire out of images that have nothing to do with desire. As he touched on the emptiness within pornography, and removed certain elements from it, he was able to reinvest these works with a real sense of longing.” Aesthetically, says Robson, “They make you think of Robert Ryman’s paintings. Until you realize that Ryman was building it all up, and Stephen was taking it all away.”
The most difficult thing about beauty is not its rarity or its presumed elitism—it’s the fact that one has to first look into the belly of the beast to find it, and then look again, even harder, to create it. Irwin was an artist whose compelling body of work mirrored his own magnetism, according to those who knew him. “When we were putting together our first group show at Invisible-Exports, Stephen’s boyfriend Dean was like, ‘you have to put Stephen in. He is amazing,’” says gallerist Benjamin Tischer. “Truth be told, I think fucking someone can sometimes alter one’s perception of his or her art, but then I met Stephen, and he was incredible. Smart, vibrant, slightly acerbic, and very sincere.” Irwin’s increasingly brittle health also seemed to bring out something otherworldly in his mien.
“He had been orphaned by the time he was 20,” says Holdiman, “and had a very traumatic and fragile life. He was very punk rock.”
“He knew he was walking a fine line with his health,” says Radtke. “That constant nearness to death made him embrace the moment, and you always felt that you were a part of that embrace.”
AIMEE WALLESTON is a writer and editor who has worked for magazines including W, Interview, Jane and The Last Magazine. She has contributed essays and reviews to Art in America, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She currently writes cultural criticism for CR Fashion Book and teaches at the International Center of Photography. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from SVA in 2009.