Sam McManis

Discoveries: Old toilets, TVs become ‘Robo Lights’ art in Palm Springs

Kenny Irwin Jr. of Palm Springs created this and other “Bots” from recycled material such as TV screens, computer monitors and appliances.
Kenny Irwin Jr. of Palm Springs created this and other “Bots” from recycled material such as TV screens, computer monitors and appliances. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Up close, you can really see the intricacy and exactitude of outsider artist Kenny Irwin Jr.’s work: the pink carousel made from toilets; the elephant-headed robot constructed from computer hard drives and flat-screen TVs; Clydesdales with computer monitors for hooves; the 500 ceramic John McCain gargoyle heads ringing a platform bearing a skulled Santa astride an exercise bike.

Yet, to appreciate the sweep of this art installation in a 2-acre backyard in this city’s old-monied Movie Colony East neighborhood, to fully grasp the overpowering muchness of it all, you must see it from above.

So you follow the chest-length-bearded man in a gray shalwar kameez, whose pantaloons and body-length shirt billow in the breeze, up a series of wooden structures, stairs and platforms of varying heights and scale – the very works of art meant to be ogled. Irwin leads you beyond a model-train track ringing the space, higher than the hulking tonnage of looming robots constructed from all manner of found objects, climbing finally to sort of a gazebo maybe 50 feet from terra firma. Along the way, as he vaults over pillars and barriers, Irwin points out various works by name – “The Mongolian Easter Bunny’s Mobile Throne,” “Alien Santa in a Space Sleigh With Mother Goose’s Shoe,” “Ferocious Toilet Bowl Deer,” “Microwav O Land” – before stopping at the apex of this vision made real.

Here, from such great height, your jaw unhinges and your pupils dilate as you take in the scene in its totality.

Irwin, 41, has commandeered nearly every inch of his father, Ken Irwin Sr.’s, vast backyard – save the swimming pool and a patch of grass on the west flank – for the ongoing work he calls “Robo Lights,” which draws upward of 30,000 visitors during the Christmas season, a good number around Easter and spring break, and a trickle of curious types year-round.

What used to be a tennis court and garden have long since been subsumed by robotic concoctions erected from recycled material ranging from ovens to junked cars to power tools and all manner of consumer electronics. And inside the sprawling custom home built by Ken Père, 85, a retired real estate developer and resort owner, Kenny’s more diminutive art is, piece by piece, taking over the large sunken living room with vaulted ceilings. There are resin skulls with materials such as watches, coins and costume jewelry, his ball-point pen drawings melding Christian, Islamic and otherworldly imagery, even some conventional still lifes and ceramics.

Before descending, you take a gander at the surrounding neighborhood, dubbed the Movie Colony because, back in Hollywood’s so-called golden years, the biggest stars in the business called Palm Springs home. And there, over your right shoulder, sits Twin Palms, the estate once occupied by Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. In fact, up and down the immaculate, palm-tree-lined streets, sprawling ranch houses sparkle in the early afternoon sun. You see two visored women stop their power walk to gaze at the art work, and a van from the tour group “Palm Springs Alive” stops both in front of Sinatra’s place and Kenny’s.

That a display such as “Robo Lights” has alighted in Palm Springs, and not the more artistically bent Joshua Tree, may seem out of place. After all, Palm Springs is known for painting the town pastel, not red. Yet, for 30 years now, Irwin’s life’s work has co-existed nicely here. The city, of course, insisted on special permits, as city pencil-pushers are wont. The neighbors hardly seem to mind and, in fact, they provide Kenny with materials, including a scorched paraglider once belonging to Paul Harrison, the guy across the street. Makes sense, really: Saves folks a trip to the dump.

Kenny, who still lives in his childhood bedroom (an overpowering art installation in itself), doesn’t see any incongruity. He says he feels blessed that the overwhelming majority of Palm Springs citizens and tourists appreciate his efforts. Ken Sr., for his part, says he never had qualms about making his home so transformed, so public. It goes beyond just paternal love, he adds. Kenny’s an artist – he’s had exhibitions at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, had works displayed at the Palm Springs and Riverside art museums, made appearances on Conan O’Brien and Oprah Winfrey’s talk shows – and artists need patrons.

 

“He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met, much less sired, that has that kind of incredible talent,” Ken Sr. said. “I didn’t ‘give up’ the back yard. We have a different priority. My priority was simply this: I was blessed with an exceptionally talented young man, who had the energy and attitude to get it done. How could you not support that?”

“Eternally grateful” is how Kenny, not exactly the 9-to-5 working type, describes his father’s support. “I mean, what would’ve happened if (patrons) didn’t support Michelangelo or Da Vinci?” he asked.

An artistically inclined child, Kenny made elaborate drawings on the walls as a toddler, decorated his room at boarding school as a performance-art piece, and began work on “Robo Lights” at the tender age of 12. He received his formal training at the California College of Arts in Oakland. He said he was never dissuaded by his father, never nudged to go into the family real estate business, and was always accepted for who he was.

Two decades ago, for instance, Kenny converted to Islam (“I like to say I ‘reverted,’ because it’s always been with me”), though the rest of his family worships Christianity.

“Obviously, he has my blessing for his faith,” the elder Irwin said. “He’s one of the few people I believe has an understanding of the true meaning of that faith. We’re a Christian family. I’m a Christian. But we’ve found Kenny personifies what I wish everyone was, whether Christian, Muslim, or whatever. He’s very inclusive. He loves people.”

Irwin’s way of reaching people is through art. He is open and exceedingly polite, exudes an almost childlike air. Quiz him about unifying themes in his work, delve into his aesthetic, ask him to mention artistic influences, and he shakes his head. That’s ascribing too much psychic baggage to his work. Mention that perhaps the world’s most noted “outsider” artist, the late Noah Purifoy, has art historians and curators visiting his surviving installation about 45 minutes away outside of Joshua Tree, and Irwin cocks his head in puzzlement.

“I was only recently told about Noah Purifoy,” he said. “My art, really, has absolutely zero influence by other artists. There’s so much force coming through me, there’s no way to try to absorb what’s coming through other artists. It’s like, when the river is a gushing torrent, how do you put more water in it?”

What, then, informs his work? Why, for instance, his repeated use of skulls? What’s up with the fixation on robots and extraterrestrials?

“Skulls?” he asks. “Who doesn’t love skulls? Skulls are fun.”

Irwin’s main working principle is joy, to make real the vivid images that come to him unbidden in non-waking moments.

“Ever since I was born, I remembered every single dream I’ve had – every one,” he said. “My dream memory is clearer than my daily memory. Through these dreams, I get a torrent of ideas, coupled with energy that powers my abilities to create the art on a massive scale. It’s an unrelenting energy. It gives me a sense of purpose to share something wonderful with the world. My subjects deal with space exploration, sustainability, artificial intelligence and whimsical things.

“The ideas I get are crystal clear and three-dimensional – and then some – in many cases. Through the dreams, I perceive things that are impossible to perceive in this world.”

In a review of his 2013 exhibition at Maryland’s American Visionary Art Museum, a Baltimore City Paper critic called Irwin’s “Sanmagnetron” Christmas sleigh featuring mounted guns and doves for ammunition “handsomely original even as they simultaneously mock and celebrate our winter holidays.”

Any talk of social commentary in his works makes Irwin deftly deflect. He shows you an installation called “Microwav O Land,” in which microwave ovens cook up electronic gadgets such as iPhones, laptops and even other microwaves, and you ask if this is a commentary on mass consumption and capitalism run amok.

He scrunches his forehead and responds: “Commentary? It’s a commentary about fun. The main focus is fun. There’s enough of that (political) stuff in the world. I mean, look at the ‘Mongolian Easter Bunny’s Throne’ over there, or the slot-machine bot, or the Iron Giant, 54 feet tall and 50 tons. It brings happiness to people. I love to watch the people come by and spend time here. ‘Better than Disneyland’ is the most common comment I get from kids.”

Still, you press. Several of the sculptures, you observe, prominently display guns.

“I take the ugly and the violent and transform it to something beautiful,” he said.

If there’s one overt message, it’s ecological. Irwin decries waste and notes that much of our discarded electronic equipment will remain in landfills long, long, after we’re gone.

“I used found objects because it helps mitigate the environmental damage caused by human waste,” he said. “There are so many perfectly useful things being thrown away. The brunt of materials gets donated by neighbors, hundreds of neighbors over the years: TVs, toilets, furniture like sofas, electronics. Someone gave a broken gun to me. It ended up becoming the tail of Rudolph (the Red Nosed Reindeer).

“I combine mediums to create installation art: painting, sculpting, drawing and carving. There’s even a little welding, but the majority has been glued and screwed together. The only non-found objects I use are materials to support the structures.”

Whereas many installation artists employ a team of workers to help construct, Irwin likes working solo. He does it all, from architectural mock-ups down to the gluing and painting.

“I just don’t understand how other artists have other people build their art?” he said. “I mean, it’s my vision. Only I know how it’s supposed to be.”

Irwin may come across as almost an artistic-innocent, happy to create and let visitors enjoy it for free (he does ask a small donation for electricity and upkeep during the holiday lights extravaganza), but he is not without ambition.

He envisions opening a “functional artistic” theme park, to be called Roboworld. He even has a site picked out in North Palm Springs. It’s all still in the planning stages; he’s not even started looking for investors.

“It’ll be the next generation of amusement park,” he said. “It takes the things not normally done in an amusement park and they’ll, like, be done here. Like, how there’s no photography. Here, I want people to photograph. I’ll have cameras available to rent. When you go to amusement parks, why don’t they ever have rides for the elderly or pets or the handicapped? This will have it all. Pets go tandem on rides of their own with their owners. I’ll make all the rides myself. This takes a huge amount of money. It’ll probably be decades before I could get it off the ground. Meanwhile, I’ll still work here.”

Irwin’s grand plan is partly due to the fact he’s running out of space in his dad’s back yard. Even Michelangelo, after all, had only limited room at the Sistine Chapel. But an artist makes do with what he has, and Irwin presses on undaunted. He shakes your hand, goodbye, and returns to his work in progress, “The Tiki Ferris Wheel,” made from an old dryer and microwave ovens.

Robo Lights Sculpture Garden

Where: 1077 East Granvia Valmonte, Palm Springs

When: Call 760-774-0318 for appointment

Cost: Free, donations accepted

More info: kennyirwinartist.com

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