Can Erasure Be A Conscious Refusal Of Cooptation?: Stephen Irwin’s “Check To See If Still Dead Inside”

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2009, Altered vintage pornography (All images courtesy of the Estate of Stephen Irwin and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

“There are few things raunchier than a centerfold of ‘nothing,’” quips critic Bruce Hainley speaking to our preeminent filth elder John Waters in Art: A Sex Book. “The imagination can go wild.” Even with his purposeful witticism, Hainley is right. Sometimes just fractured glimpses of body parts–a hand, a silhouette, a mouth–amidst a sea of emptiness can be entirely more erotic than straight-up gratuitous porn. Who doesn’t like to be teased a bit by imagery?

But spaces of nothingness, especially when referencing sexuality, raise a multitude of questions about erasure. When is erasure a form of violent repression? How can viewers distinguish a representation of repression from repression in and of itself? Can erasure or self-censorship be a conscious refusal to be the subject of the oppressive, regulatory and objectifying gaze of the viewer as voyeur?

All these questions, and more, come up when confronted with late Kentucky-based artist Stephen Irwin’s works in his current exhibition Check To See If Still Dead Inside at INVISIBLE-EXPORTS. Best known for his series of erased images from vintage pornography, the years-long series ranges from more vibrantly colored and physically recognizable to more muted and indiscernible. Here, INVISIBLE-EXPORTS collects some of Irwin’s faintest black-and-white images. By restricting the color palate and all but obliterating the images, Check To See If Still Dead Inside appears ghostly and somber like forgotten relics of past desires.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, dates unknown, Graphite and pastel on heat-treated plastic

Coupled with a series of death mask-like sculptures, presented in the center of the space, it is tempting to read Irwin’s fascination with ephemerality in conjunction with his own illness and death (he had a heart condition). However, while other critics might give in, I see the strength of Irwin’s artwork in a much wider context than his own personal experiences. Instead, his work reveals a potential erotic power that comes not from visibility, but willful invisibility.

Before we get to the works themselves, I feel like a bit about Irwin has to be said since, at least I, sadly never got to see his work before he died. Based in Louisville, Irwin was described in Butt Magazine in 2008 as “a true chameleon…, a landscaper, nightclub impresario, international interior decorator, trendsetter, rocker, …modern artist, local celebrity, trash, multiple heart-attack survivor, pacemaker carrier, bitch, and a confidante to Louisville’s ladies of good taste.” Sounds like a role model to me!

Not only an artist and a freelance designer, Irwin also co-owned Sparks, a local nightclub and community hub. According to Stacy Thomas’ catalogue essay for Zephyr Gallery’s posthumous This, This is for You, Sparks was “was a safe haven for individuality and absolute freedom. For many, Sparks became a place for personal discovery: an adult playground built for guilt-free libidinal resplendence existing in total opposition to society” (2). According to Thomas, Irwin would frequently say with a “nihilistic yet prescient tone”: “We are all just dancing on the precipice of disaster” (2).

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2010, Altered vintage pornography

That same fascination with celebratory oblivion comes through in Irwin’s artwork–a play with loss and ephemerality that almost crumbles into complete nothingness. Like his nihilistic statement about Sparks, nothing is forever in Irwin’s hands and there is nothing that can’t be erased.

Irwin’s works on view in Check To See If Still Dead Inside are the result of a painstaking and almost violent process of erasure. Taking hypersexualized images from sleekly printed vintage gay pornography, chosen for its standard gravure process, Irwin uses astringent processes and steel wool to rub the image away from the paper. What remains is faint lines and physical remnants of figures. In some works, viewers can make out a hand, a face, or a silhouette, while in others, there’s only an angle presumably from someplace on the body–the division between an arm and the figure’s torso, for example. Sometimes works leave you wondering just what the hell it is you’re looking at.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2008, Altered vintage pornography

Perhaps because of this, Irwin’s works are strangely more highly erotic than just blatant depictions of sex. By reflecting those flickering moments in which the division between partners is nearly unrecognizable, Irwin reveals that eroticism can occur without the full presence of the body. As Vince Aletti writes on Irwin, “what Irwin zeroed in on was the image’s essence: not just eroticism but desire–an instance of erotic abandon, a flash of genuine passion in the midst of pornography’s chilly mechanics.”

The genius, though, of Irwin’s haunting imagery is the multitude of readings that can be taken from his ambiguous lack of imagery and its erasure. Silence and invisibility, it seems, contains multitudes. In his seminal The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, Michel Foucault speaks about the numerous forms and meanings of silence: “Silence itself–the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers–is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (27).

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2009, Altered vintage pornography

Similarly, Irwin’s art contains not just one purpose of silence or erasure, but many. Perhaps the most obvious is the relation between his tactile process and the silences surrounding same-sex desire. Particularly coming from Kentucky, a state known more for Saint Kim Davis than its forward-looking LGBTQ agenda, where silences run rampant, Irwin’s representations become significant, similar to fellow Kentuckian Louis Zoellar Bickett. By erasing these acts from gay porn, Irwin makes literal the invisibility of queer desire and acts in the American South.

His erasure also relates, in some respects, to the losses endured during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There is a similarity between Irwin’s work and Pacifico Silano’s–not just in their combined use of vintage gay pornography, but in their desire to tangle with lost generations of gay men. By using porn from the 1960s until the 1980s, Irwin likely erases the bodies of subjects who themselves literally disappeared due to complications with HIV/AIDS.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2008, Altered vintage pornography, double-sided

But the losses of HIV/AIDS did not just concern queer lives and bodies, it also tossed away cultural production and ephemera of queer lives. In fact, Irwin came across his vintage pornography collection inadvertently because of HIV/AIDS. As Stephanie Thomas notes in her catalogue essay, “Although the 90s were pushing gay people out of the closet and into the mainstream, for many–especially older generations of gay men–this was a topic that was not discussed. Irwin had a friend who had to clean up the “gay evidence” of a family member who had passed away before the rest of the family was involved and in a panic, called Irwin and said, ‘What do I do with all of these porn magazines?’ Irwin promptly offered his address and had them shipped to his house” (2).

However, while all these readings do fit with Irwin’s work, I like to read his erasure in the context of taking power back from the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer. While many artists in the past like David Wojnarowicz have used their works to counter silence and invisibility, today, queer visibility is likely more high-profile than ever. Even though same-sex desire is still seen as taboo by many (Hello, Mike Pence!), it has also become fodder for clickbait articles (This Queer Artist Does _____!). And this popularity of queer visibility is connected to being out, proud and laying out queer bodies for the consumption of readers, viewers and buyers. I mean, who hasn’t gone to an art show recently and seen examples of wannabe Robert Mapplethorpes with blatant depictions of queer sexuality? It’s become commonplace and frankly, boring.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2008, Altered vintage pornography

Foucault saw this happening even before. Historically, sexuality has seen a proliferation of discourses even through claims of repression. As Foucault writes in The History of Sexuality, Vol 1, “Rather than the uniform concern to hide sex, rather than a general prudishness of language, what distinguishes these last three centuries is the variety, the wide dispersion of devices that were invented for speaking about it, for having it be spoken about, for inducing it to speak for itself, for listening, recording, transcribing and redistributing what is said about it: around sex, a whole network of varying, specific and coercive transpositions into discourse. Rather than a massive censorship, beginning with the verbal properties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (34). And, in fact, like Foucault shows, this incitement to discourse can be and is a tool of dominant power: “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret” (35).

So the question remains–how do artists remain transgressive in depicting same-sex desire while refusing to submit to the current obsession with queer identity and “queer art”? Well, Irwin shows us how. For me, Irwin’s erasure is a subversive gesture that returns same-sex eroticism back to the realm of shielded invisibility not as some sort of asexual closet case, but as a means to regain agency and refuse visibility.

Stephen Irwin, Untitled, 2009, Altered vintage pornography (Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS)

Irwin’s works demonstrate the power of self-erasure–the power the artist has to obscure the gaze, denying the cooptation of these desires by dominant forces that wish to transform them into a performance of allyship and progressive politics. Irwin blocks the viewers’ gaze, rendering it unfulfilled and unsatisfied. In this respect, Irwin’s images are reminiscent of Warhol’s early films, focusing on odd, seemingly random moments rather than the money shot. Take, for example, Warhol’s Blow Job, a heroically long film focusing on the blowjob receiver’s face in ecstasy rather than the act itself. Warhol, like Irwin, blocks the viewers’ complete gratification, while still heightening an alternative form of eroticism. As Hainley observed on Warhol’s practice in Art: A Sex Book, “There’s nothing that couldn’t be possibly transmuted into something sexual. Thinking is sexy. Being bored is sexy. Nothing is sexy” (11).

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