Robert Irwin – Gypsy Switch
Robert Irwin’s show at the Corcoran Museum consists of one piece entitled: Gypsy Switch. I would bore you with the physical details of this work because they are precisely the reason why this piece, despite endeavoring towards a transformative visual goal, falls short. Robert Irwin has spent a career creating work that redefines spaces and our ability to interact with them visually. Much of his recent portfolio has been on a larger scale and addressed architectural construction both in buildings and landscapes and has spanned a great variety of media. Gypsy Switch is a break from these works as it is much more referential to painting in size and composition. However, Gypsy Switch is no exception in the way it still pertains to his investigations into human perception.
The work is part of a larger collection of pieces all created in 2010 built from the same fluorescent bulbs and designed in a similar fashion. Many of them are currently on display at The Pace Gallery in New York City in a show titled “Way Out West” but Gypsy Switch bears some noteworthy differences to this other collection. The pieces in The Pace Gallery show are colored vibrantly, lit minimally by exterior lighting, and hung in such a way that they dominate and fill the wall. They invite the viewers gaze with their warmth and redefine the spaces they occupy with their own light.
In contrast, Gypsy Switch has a much cooler palette. All of the bulbs are cold whites, muted grays, sickly greens, or black with the exception of one unlit red bulb at its center. This serves to create a more ethereal and distant affect, one that does not draw in the viewer so much as seem to indicate a sort of industrial aloofness that holds one at arm’s length. If the viewer were to brave this sterile barrier and venture closer they would be grounded by the familiarity of the materials present despite the fact they do not appear in the material list for the piece. Irwin lists the following as the media comprising the work: light, shadow, reflection, and color. However it is difficult for the viewer to interact and fixate solely on these basic components or perceptual tenets when the recognizable materiality of the piece dominates the room.
The fact that the room was lit overhead also served to distract and detract from the power of the piece. Any environment changing effects were negated by the harsh focused light from spotlights which stood at odds with the softer cooler glow of the fluorescent bulbs. The high ceilings also made the piece feel dwarfed which restricted its ability to influence and impact its surroundings.
The overall form of the piece is certainly one of its most powerful elements. Forming a larger rectangle through the arrangement of vertical oriented bulbs, the viewer is forced to address the work as they would a painting, head on. The piece does not reward a diagonal view and this is reinforced by the symmetrical arrangement of the fluorescent lights. As they mirror themselves outward from the central red bulb the layout rewards a viewer whose binocular vision is centered on the work. However here the scale becomes problematic as you are required to get rather close to the piece to allow it to completely fill your field of vision and it is not until this point that Gypsy Switch begins to exert any power to transform your surroundings. But as you close on the piece and it begins to fill your world the details and manner of its construction powerfully reassert themselves, pulling you away from a moment of perceptual discovery.
Though the piece is rectangular in composition its edges blur slightly as your eye moves between lit and unlit bulbs. The varying of the boundaries starts to confuse the eye as it moves across the piece, but there are too many opportunities for the viewer to catch themselves on something solid or referential. The unlit bulbs and empty sockets provide this effect steadily to the detriment of the work. The existing light emanating from the piece is not bright or dominant enough to transform the space around it completely and so the viewer remains stuck addressing the work through a formal and object oriented vocabulary.
Sadly it seems that the work is best viewed in photographs. Here you can readily divorce yourself from the distracting details of the objects present in the piece. Unable to approach the work, you must interpret only the viewpoint presented which displays the piece at its best. Camera captured images also serve to exaggerate the soft unfocused light that emanates from the piece and makes it far more captivating and nuanced removing the exacting details that detract from its airy qualities.
But even as a photograph the work does not achieve its transformative goal. Locked into a single viewpoint and held at a distance the work does not alter your perception of your surroundings as it becomes completely contained by the frame of the image. It no longer interacts with your perceptual world and becomes only an object to be viewed entirely separate from oneself. In a photograph, it carries the potential of transmuting the space around it, but it is a space that cannot be accessed or interacted with by the viewer because it exists only in the image. This frozen illusion of possibility presents an initial intrigue to the piece that, similar to the actual work, is lost when one tries to investigate it more closely.
Rather than encouraging some sort of visual phenomenological impulse the piece instead grounds the viewer in the even beauty of symmetry, soft light, and linear form. There is no denying the visual complexity that Irwin has generated so elegantly with such simple tools but the work does not achieve a transformative capacity and is stunted by the room it is displayed in. Gypsy Switch does not transform the world it inhabits as it is grounded by earthly materiality and association. This prevents it from becoming a purely perceptual experience and locks the viewer in a spectacle of material connections.