Stephen Irwin Check to see if still dead inside
April 7 – May 14, 2017
The first posthumous solo exhibition in New York of the late, Louisville-based artist Stephen Irwin (1959 − 2010), is so restrained it makes your teeth hurt. Sixteen black-and-white “rub outs” (the double entendre the artist used for them), all 2008 – 11 1/2 by 8 1/2; inches, are pages from vintage pornography scrubbed away and hung en filade around the windowless interior of Invisible Exports. The imagery is all found, despite the fact that they look like they could be drawings. Using steel wool and sandpaper, the artist removed most of each image, leaving only certain areas intact: the open gap between a man’s arm and torso, or a vertical line, like an image seen through a cracked door. A glimpse of a hand, torso, or a face contorted in ecstasy, floats in a white-gray ether, divorced entirely from its original context.
Most of Irwin’s original material is from the 1960s; he never used anything printed after 1987, when the paper stock became thinner. Irwin loved the way the paper changed under his touch. After his process of scouring, the material looked like skin, as he often referred to it. The works are reminiscent of Old Master drawings; Irwin was an avid, informal student of art history. His drawings recall cartoons, pounced in preparation for frescoes, in which empty swaths give way to sculpturally modeled details, especially hands and faces.
In the center of the gallery, nine untitled (dates unknown) photorealistic drawings of faces in graphite and pastel on volumes of heat-treated plastic are presented on a white plinth like artifacts. Irwin was also a master draughtsman. He called them “shrinky-dinks,” and it is the first time this work has been shown anywhere.
Death saturates every image like memento mori and links raw sexual energy with mortality. In “A Studio Day,” a poem reproduced in the 2014 catalogue, Stephen Irwin (r/e projects, Madrid), Irwin wrote: “Think about dirty sex with boyfriend in vegas last month / read some bataille on erotism / think about desire, / some light wojnarowicz / think about sex and death, / think about boyfriend and dying / casually open a box of porn.” The removal of explicit information trains our focus on moments of beauty and real feeling when the unrealistic all-over clarity and focus of the pornographic image is disrupted. The originals were already tinged with death, as many were inherited from Irwin’s friends and acquaintances who died of AIDS. The artist’s untimely demise hangs over the show, just as it did his whole life; Irwin was plagued by congenital heart disease and had undergone several open heart surgeries before he was thirty, his partner who survives him, Dean Holdiman, told me.
Irwin was a charismatic leader in the Louisville community, where he lived his whole life. He was the proprietor of the infamous nightclub Sparks. It wasn’t technically a gay bar, but its basement served as a back room. He took care of wayward gay teenagers who sought refuge. Alternating freely from drag, to Rock ‘n’ Roll, to queer, Sparks was a place where it was a different night every night, and anything went. Tale of the club spread by word of mouth in queer circles coast-to-coast.
Though he made art in his spare time, Irwin channeled his creative impulse into the club, continuously redesigning its aesthetic. He flew in nightlife personalities like Lady Bunny; major bands, like the Butthole Surfers, performed there; and it attracted celebrities like Trent Reznor. Ben Tischer, who now represents the artist’s estate, told me that the invitations to nights at the club were over-designed and highly individualized by Irwin himself.
One day, without warning, Irwin closed the door to the club forever. After his third heart attack in 2000, he turned to art full-time at age forty-two. Just under a decade later in 2010, and days before a two-person exhibition of his work was to open, his body was found in Zephyr Gallery (an artists’ collective in Louisville of which he was a member); aged fifty-one. His early death cut short his artistic career, but not before his first solo show in New York: Sometimes When We Touch, which opened at Invisible Exports in October of 2009. His work has since been shown around the world, in London, Munich, Miami, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and of course, Louisville, where his memorial was held at the Speed Museum to much fanfare, with DJs, drag queens, and a celebration, followed by a posthumous solo exhibition there in 2011.
One colored landscape from 2007 that looks out over a receding horizon, a ghostly absence in its foreground, hangs in the gallery’s back room like an escape hatch. Irwin will always be remembered as a nonconformist, a hedonist who didn’t waste a single moment, but his sensual, understated work is his legacy.