What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

February 11, 2021

Robert Irwin
Kayne Griffin
January 9 - February 27, 2021

Robert Irwin

In Unlights, Robert Irwin uses basic industrial materials to create sculptural wall works that play with viewers' perceptions as well as expectations. Each piece consists of six-foot fluorescent tubes mounted to rectangular fixtures that are vertically attached to the wall in sets of fifteen units. They are formal experiments that engage with the principles of geometric abstraction to form visual palindromes. Each work combines fluorescent tubes wrapped with translucent gels and strips of electrical tape to become oscillating waves of subtle colors, lights and darks.

In the past, Irwin has juxtaposed lit and unlit fluorescent lights examining the ways their halos both blur and expand the space around the vertical lines. In Unlights, he creates and explores implicit undulations of the wrapped fluorescent light fixtures without their glowing luminosity. Though firmly ensconced on the wall, the works change depending on angle of view. From the side, they appear sculptural, while from the front they resemble colorfield paintings made from wall paint, metal, plastic and glass objects. Because the fluorescent tubes are round, they reflect light in myriad ways, changing as viewers pass by or as the light in the spaces transitions. A similar shift occurs when regarding the reflective white supports.

The five works (all from 2018), are 72 inches high and range in width from 95 to 104 inches — the discrepancies based on the relationship between single and double tubes and the spaces between them. Each is named after a place-- Muscle Shoals, Mesquite, Fargo, Mozambique and Balboa -- suggesting the works are landscapes in which disparate places are represented by striations of color. The fifteen sections of Fargo span the wall alternating between blank units (solid white boxes that are approximately 4.5 inches wide) and units with one or two colored tubes. Irwin's soft palette contains blues and greens augmented by traces of light yellow and deep purple. The work is perfectly symmetrical, the colors and number of tubes mirrored, as the composition extends out from the center to either side. A unit with two light green tubes is flanked by units (with single light blue-gray tubes) whose outside edges are lined with black tape. From here, the pattern moves to yellow then blue and gray, then a blank unit, followed by two more light green tubes, then another single blue-gray tube. While the spaces in between are empty in Fargo, in other works like Balboa, Irwin adds a medium gray to the thin strip of wall wall between the units and in some instances also colors the side of the units which increases the illusion of depth, confounding what is painted, what is light and what is shadow.

In Mesquite, Irwin tapes black lines down the sides of six of the fixtures creating a visual border. The only double unit (tubes wrapped with black gels with lines of gray tape) is positioned in the center. From there, Irwin intersperses gray, copper and white (clear) tubes with tubeless fixtures. There is a Mesquite, Texas, as well as Nevada. Mesquite is also a plant. The various associations of the word both ground and obfuscate the meaning of the work. But perhaps that is Irwin's point. He has remarked that, "It’s not about answers. It’s the constant pursuit of the possibilities of what art is," and these intriguing and beautiful works seem to encapsulate the different phases of his creative endeavors. What at first glance seems to be floating lines, turns out to be carefully constructed artworks that investigate complex color and perceptual relationships. Irwin uses minimal materials to invite the viewer to contemplate ideas pertaining to color, light, perception, space, environment and illusion. His Unlights are at once minimal and maximal works that blur the boundaries between object and environment.