From the street, you get a taste of what’s to come. A line of reindeer covered with flashing lights. Ordinary enough for mid-December.
However each of these reindeer is an assemblage of busted furniture, scrap wood, discarded computer hardware, toys, branches, roots, and other garbage. All the heterogeneous materials are painted white—pulpy, matte white paint slathered on thick.
They’re big enough to be imposing, even intimidating. The designation “junk sculptures,” is not incorrect, but there’s nothing cute, nostalgic or whimsical about these things. They’re stoutly constructed; they’re intimidating. They radiate an energy that’s disturbing. They are also more than a one-liner: they reward the careful observer with layer after layer of curious detail. The banal pretext of a “holiday lighting display:” only deepens the puzzle. What they evoke isn’t cheer, but tragedy.
I sympathize with the neighbors, who didn’t ask to have their quiet street disrupted by a portal to visionary frenzy. I made my second visit to Robolights on Wednesday, after visiting the new Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, and it’s exhibit on E. Stewart Williams. I love that mix of high modernist austerity and Southern California flash and fun. And I’m delighted that Palm Springs appreciates the mid-century gems that survive. But stepping from that world of understated elegance into the world of Robolights, was, for me, a demonstration of the difference between good taste and significance.
Inside the garden Irwin provides several more versions of the Santa and the reindeers theme, most including Irwin’s favored imagery (aliens, guns, skulls, toilets, glass fronted machines such as TVs, monitors, and, especially, microwaves). One features a black Santa on top of a towering stagecoach/tank led by anthropomorphic yellow people/reindeer assembling on an outdoor basketball court. They seem to be displaying their internal organs on the outside. On the court they meet another Santa whose sleigh is pulled by a line of white toilets from which emerge reindeer heads, most of which have many more than two eyes. The scene is guarded by robots—some gigantic, others diminutive. All are subtly individualized.
It would be hard to imagine anything less like mid-century modernism. I suppose it would be best if all creative work strived for sweetness and light, but without the Goyas and Dostoevskies, the contemporary world would be unintelligible and unbearable. I’m not saying that Kenny Irwin’s work constitutes art on the level of Goya or Dostoevsky. I’m not sure it’s art at all. One thing I am sure about is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s art or not.
It’s important to stress that the work is a process, not a product. Any description—including this—becomes inaccurate on being stated. My friends took me to Robolights around 9:00 p.m. Tuesday night, and when I went back the next afternoon I noticed several elements had already changed: two white wands with blue lights had been added to the entrance gate, and the Death’s head gingerbread medallion above the caste-iron bench at the exit was gone, and something else was in the process of being installed. I imagine this goes on perpetually.
That being understood, I suppose it’s perverse to talk about Irwin’s details, but they drew me into the work. I saw these intricate juxtapositions of textures and shapes …
Note Irwin’s distinct color palette: Persian pink, Mint and Harlequin green, Dark orange, heavy, matte white. It’s jarring and beautiful. He prefers objects to be monochrome. I suspect he’s examined Louise Nevelson’s way of unifying an assemblage with a strong, single color in think opaque paint.
Besides the details and the colors, on these first visits I was also impressed by the care with which the elements were arranged over the property. The visitor’s experience is thoughtfully choreographed, passing from enclosed spaces to open spaces, narrow passages lead to wider ones. The property is large, but the ingenuity of the arrangement makes it seem even larger. It provides astonishing vistas.
At some point I will attempt to write more clearly about Robolights. I haven’t even mentioned the music that accompanied several of the installations—including the incessant thump of a green robot’s arm against a post that permeated the garden. Or the use of hard plastic foam, which appears everywhere, like punctuation marks. Or all the microwaving of objects that should not be microwaved ….
Ordered, but not fixed, Robolights has the scruffiness of a real, living garden. It’s lucky for us that in the genres of gardening and holiday decoration, Irwin finds a way of producing and presenting his unprecious, temporary and significant work.