Irwin and Constraint

My first proper art world crush was dressed in scrim and light and hailed from a time slightly before my time, making him legend by the time that I discovered his work. Robert Irwin and his writings about anechoic chambers, reduction, and light, magnificent light, landed on my desk at just about the exact moment I had grown weary of the clatter and clang of the glass shop with its roaring furnaces and sweaty boys who insisted on endless reggae. 

It's not easy to walk away from blowing glass. It's a world of molten orange and burning beeswax and adamant choreography with esoteric, beautiful tools. It's for adrenaline junkies and chemists and technicians and sometimes for graceful dancers. I loved all of this about it until I didn't, until I wanted quiet and the option to move more slowly. Even the furnace never goes quiet in a hot shop or the glass will cool and the tank will crack so I retreated to my shabby studio space across campus and dove into Irwin's ideas about perception, process and light. 

My favorite stories about Irwin- and James Turrell- are about their experiments with anechoic chambers- rooms built to eliminate, entirely, sound and light. The intention is to sit in darkness and absolute silence, save the body's natural noise, for a period of hours to establish a cleansing of the senses before reentering the familiar world. Emerged, it is perception that is shifted, colors heightened and sound much more complex. Distilled, it creates an ability to perceive the aura of things, the energy of common objects and space. 


James Turrell and Robert Irwin in the anechoic chamber during their collaboration with Garrett Corporation. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

James Turrell and Robert Irwin in the anechoic chamber during their collaboration with Garrett Corporation. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"For a few hours after you came out, you really did become more energy conscious, not just that leaves move but that everything has a kind of aura, that nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. " Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees


It is this initial moment of reemergence, this renewed capacity for perception that Irwin continued to chase, challenging us through highly reductive installations where we can make new meaning of what might typically be perceived as ordinary or overlooked altogether. 

Nine months ago, through constraints born both by aesthetics and ethics, I committed to weaving, exclusively, with the naturally colored cotton developed by Sally Fox. I, too, was interested in the discovery of what might typically be perceived as ordinary or overlooked.

I was introduced to the hues of brown and green by their Fox-given names- Buffalo, Coyote, Palo Verde. Yarns are organized by the percentage of colored cotton mixed with natural Pima- 25%/ 50%/ 100%. All of this explains form, all of this points to design, all of this tells us what to expect as we plot and plan. None of this insinuates the aura of this plant nor the abiding perceptual shifts in color if we just spend more time with it.

I like the rest of what happened while weaving hundreds of yards with these supple, wily colors. I like how much noise they make when placed next to one another in warp or weft. I like the reverberation of green inching into the palest rosy brown, how their meeting becomes ecstatic conversation with wild hand gestures.

I like, very much, how the green sometimes looks more brown and the brown sometimes looks more green and they confuse me as much as they confuse one another in the simplest of twills. Hold it up to a bit of natural light and this cloth becomes a maze of perceptive offerings, some of which can be named, some of which are wholly spectacular.

I confess to having a hard time thinking about transitioning to wool and alpaca, both of which are on the docket for our new work with new farmers. I'm over the moon about these farmers and the woolen wear that we have planned for Autumn and Winter but I've grown very attached to the lessons of color and light from Sally's cotton. I've come to rely on the repetitive constraint and surprise.

I pressed the newest batch of cotton for delivery to our cut and sew partner today. After the weaving is cut from the loom, we wash and dry it to finish the process and transition it from 'weaving' into 'cloth'. The last step of pressing and trimming is also my time to comb over the work to ensure consistency and craft. Pressing relaxes the cotton into it's elongated state where the colors fully reveal how they've taken to the particular weaving pattern. Pressing is my first moment of really seeing how this particular combination of light and form will now reside in the world. It's a quiet part of the process with just steam and the occasional click of the iron as it charges towards full heat. I linger here, studying the surface as if it were a piece of music or a map, a draft of a much more complex sensual story to be explored before we make it into forms that are easier to name, like shirts or dresses.