Nov. 24 2015 05:27 PM

MCASD’s installation from the iconic local artist is breathtakingly unnerving

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Robert Irwin: Light and Space
Photo by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

In this semi-regular department, arts editor Seth Combs reviews notable new art shows or exhibitions.

There are plenty of stories out there about local installation artist Robert Irwin. One of the pioneers of the '70s Light and Space movement and arguably San Diego's greatest living artist, there's no shortage of accolades and referential material out there on the net so I'll spare you the history lesson.

However, there was one story I heard recently that I found myself thinking about while viewing Irwin's Light and Space installation at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art. It came from a local artist who also worked as a professional installer at several museums and galleries. As he told it, not only did he find Irwin's work to be inspirational, but the artist also shared a story about an Irwin installation during the height of the recession. In the middle of assembling the show, the story goes, the staff was informed that they wouldn't be paid for the installation and that they were all ostensibly being laid off effective immediately.

They finished installing Irwin's piece even though they knew they wouldn't be paid. Why? As the artist plainly put it: "Because it's him. I'm not sure we would have done that for anyone else."

I thought about that story a lot while viewing Light and Space. I thought about a lot of things that didn't have anything to do with art. The enormous light installation has a way of metastasizing around the eyes, spreading into the viewer's brain to where whatever they were thinking about before is suddenly gone and replaced with a drift of incoming and outgoing thought.

The installation has also been thoroughly covered by the media. It was originally installed for a MCASD La Jolla show in 2007 so while it isn't a new work, anyone who knows Irwin's work will tell you that seeing any piece by him is like seeing it for the first time. The industrial surroundings of the downtown location provides a much different setting, with the geometric light shapes resembling snowflakes falling in an 8-bit video game. Each light gives off an aura and every shape competes for dominance. Squint. Stare at it. Walk around it. Lay down in front of it. Just look at it and get lost.

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