The word “erasure” sounds like a threat because it is one. Violence underpins its promise of oblivion; it is a word that leaves only palimpsests in its wake, undecipherable traces of whatever came before. Kentucky native Stephen Irwin faced the threat of erasure every day of his life. Queer and chronically ill (he suffered from heart disease), Irwin was anathema to a conservative American Southern society that prized strong, straight men above all else. Nevertheless, he thrived in Louisville until his untimely death in 2010.
On view at Invisible-Exports, Check to see if still dead inside retraces the artist’s late work as a gesture toward the sublime and erotic intimacy Irwin rarely achieved because of his physical condition. In altered images of gay pornography magazines, figures previously engaged in sex acts are now alone, or barely present themselves. Fragile and faded, the artist’s works on paper depict loneliness as a driving force of desire, and erasure as the faintest of signposts toward the erotic, queer bliss Irwin so deeply prized.
Ripping out the glossy pages of vintage gay pornography magazines, Irwin defaces his orgasmic subjects with a process resulting in what he euphemistically described as “rub-outs.” While the exact method is ambiguous, the product is contrastingly tactile and phantasmal. Irwin strips the pornography magazine of its bodies, wearing out its pages that fuzz and rip. Destroying everything save a few specks of ink, Irwin summons wraithlike shadows to occupy these spaces of former visual delight. Subsequent details are scant, often coming in the form of throwbacks to art history — pursed lips edited into a series of constructivist circles, a glimpse of naked flesh seen through one of Barnett Newman’s “zips.” These fragmented images could come across as commonplace fetishism, but they avoid that trap. Irwin imbues his source material with meaning, recasting queer bliss as some distant utopia, where desire is unchained by social mores or corporeality.
At the center of the exhibition is a selection of nine objects resembling death masks that unsettle as much as they intrigue. Through a combination of pastel, graphite, and melted plastics, Irwin warps portraiture into uncanny pieces of trash. It’s tempting to see Irwin’s masks as a comment on the pain his chronic illness and queerness caused him; however, the work feels too gentle and loving for that. Rather, the artist wants us to catch ourselves in the reflection of his distorted masks. He is asking us to empathize with people who struggle internally with illness but may otherwise not show it.
Is the artist reflecting on the fleeting nature of love? Is he complicating our relationship to sex through the mitigating forces of violence? Or perhaps Irwin finds pleasure in erasure. Today, we prize queer visibility as a normalizing tool of equality. And within the queer community, the decision to not be visible is met with disbelief and anger. Presence is power, sure, but there is something to be said for Irwin’s intimate quietude, his soulful determination to hold tightly to his identity. The erasure in Irwin’s work is not about anonymity, shame, or disappearance, but the bliss that comes with fading into one’s erotic fantasies.
Stephen Irwin: Check to see if still dead inside continues at Invisible-Exports (89 Eldridge St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 14.