Above: Install of Stephen Irwin: Miss Everyone I Ever Loved at The Carnegie. All photos courtesy of the Carnegie and New Discretions, photo credit: Jesse Ly.
Stephen Irwin: Miss Everyone I Ever Loved
I am haunted by Stephen Irwin. We never met—sadly, he passed away in 2012, years before I was fully aware of his influence in Louisville’s art community. I first encountered his work in a 2016 retrospective at Zephyr Gallery, this, this is for you, and was immediately awestruck by his quiet, powerful artwork. After that, his work has continually appeared in exhibitions in the region, the most recent being Stephen Irwin: Miss Everyone I Ever Loved at the Carnegie.
If ghostly metaphors are apt to describe Irwin’s continued presence in Kentucky, so too are they applicable to his work; much of his oeuvre is defined by its restrained palette—whites, grays, pinks, and beiges—and depicts individuals who either dissipate or emerge from white voids. Ghosts are intrinsically linked to death, but they can also represent the pull of the past on the present. In many ways, it seems that Irwin was also haunted. Some of the vintage pornography he used in his practice was inherited from friends who died of AIDS.1 The exhibition title Miss Everyone I Ever Loved, which references a line in the artist’s poem “A Studio Day,” could be seen as a direct reference to these people who continued to impact his career long after they passed. As Elizabeth Freeman notes in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, a hallmark of queer affect is the “stubborn lingering of pastness.”2 This is in part due to trauma experienced during the AIDS crisis, but also can be seen as the defiant persistence of queer individuals throughout history.
While the artist’s altered vintage pornography (“rub-outs” as he referred to them) are his most recognizable work, he experimented with a wide range of media. Miss Everyone I Ever Loved features a number of graphite and pastel portraits that are finely rendered on sheets of plastic. They are then heated, causing the material to warp and take on an appearance closer to skin than plastic. Hung directly on the wall with pins, the physicality of these works stand in contrast with the more ethereal magazine pages, a comparison that is thrust to the forefront with the curatorial decision to consistently alternate between the two types of work. The rippled surfaces of the plastic lend an eerie corporeality to the exhibition, melding flesh and spirit.
Irwin retains his light hand when marking on plastic, creating tension between the barely visible portraits and undulating surfaces. While some works are glossy white and undoubtedly plastic, others take on more flesh-like qualities. Untitled (2003) bears resemblance to a piece of tanned leather with a delicately-rendered, androgynous face that morphs and shifts with the uneven material. In another untitled work from 2003, what appears to be backing material or another layer of plastic peels away like shed skin. Irwin uses blue tones to outline a face with pursed lips, causing the figure to seem like a specter that may leave its earthly body behind. Unlike the works that appropriate pornography, there is no way to identify or categorize those who are depicted. Perhaps it is more important to determine what they represent; like the altered magazine pages, the figures nearly disappear into the background as if the artist is capturing them before they are fully lost.
By selectively isolating moments of pleasure—faces caught in orgasmic bliss, grasping hands, indeterminate areas of flesh—Irwin transforms depictions of explicit activity into ghostly auras. To achieve this, he uses an abrasive material such as steel wool to physically remove layers of color. The artist’s technique varies from piece to piece. In Untitled (2009) he leaves a thin, vertical strip of the original imagery while the rest of the page is scratched away and unreadable. A grouping titled Cosmos (2009) shows a more playful side as he creates a composition of perfectly formed circles across multiple pages. Most interesting among these works, however, are those that leave behind a trace of the former image. Untitled (2010) draws the viewer’s eye to the circles on the left-hand side, then leaves them to explore the muted pinks and grays that comprise the rest of the piece. A voyeuristic desire to see beyond these peepholes leaves the viewer searching for details, but ultimately left with little more than a smoky haze. In two untitled works from 2008, a single person is depicted mid-coitus but surrounded by fields of white, as if their sexual partner has just vanished. For Irwin, a gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, the notion of those around him rapidly disappearing was markedly, lamentably familiar.
While little scholarship has focused on the relationship between Irwin’s aesthetics and HIV/AIDS, it is hard to deny its impact on his body of work. In a 2007 interview with Sarah Kessler, he mused, “You wonder about the people that appear [in porn]. If it was forty years ago, how many of those people are still alive? Being in that industry they probably didn’t survive the AIDS years. That component is odd to me because you’re jerking off over the dead.”3 The figures’ ghostly qualities take on new meaning when considering this notion. Photography suspends a moment in time with the click of a shutter, allowing a future viewer to engage in cross-temporal dialogue; looking pornography made prior to the 1980s allows us to experience a moment in which HIV/AIDS was not a looming threat. And yet, the artist does not revel in the past. Instead, Irwin’s erasure mirrors the numerous deaths wrought by the AIDS epidemic.
Above all, Irwin’s work at the Carnegie expresses a certain longing—for flesh, for intimacy, for those we have lost. Regarding these types of desire, Freeman writes, “While physical contact across time may be impossible, the very wish for it demands and enacts formal strategies and political stances worth taking seriously. Longing produces modes of both belonging and ‘being long,’ or persisting over time.”4 Following this logic, the artist reaches into the past and future simultaneously, ensuring that he will be remembered for years to come. From what I know of Irwin from interviews and first-hand accounts, I think he would be very pleased with his continued relevance to our region. And I hope his spirit never leaves.
Stephen Irwin: Miss Everyone I Ever Loved is on display at the Carnegie beginning July 5, 2020 through late August.
The Carnegie is located at 1028 Scott Blvd, Covington, KY 41011 and is open Thursday through Sunday from 12-4pm. Additional information regarding timed tickets and visitor policies can be found on their website.
- Stephen Truax, “Stephen Irwin Check to see if still dead inside,” Brooklyn Rail, May 2017.
- Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 8.
- Sarah Kessler, “Kentucky Country Night School: A Conversation with Stephen Irwin,” Pitch no. 7 (2007).
- Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 13
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Untitled (2010), altered vintage pornography.
Untitled (2008), altered vintage pornography.
Untitled (2003), graphite and pastel on heat treated plastic.
Untitled (2003), graphite and pastel on heat treated plastic.
Untitled (2009), altered vintage pornography.
Install of Stephen Irwin: Miss Everyone I Ever Loved at The Carnegie.