Robolights: The Art of Kenny Irwin

Robolights Photo Credit Kristine Schomaker
Photo Credit Kristine Schomaker

Robolights: The Art of Kenny Irwin

By Genie Davis

In the quiet residential Movie Colony neighborhood of Palm Springs, an amazing and surreal fantasy springs to life every holiday season. Robolights is an edgy, whimsical art wonderland created by Kenny Irwin on what was until recently his father’s four-acre property. (Kenny Irwin, Sr. passed away in July, 2016).

While the magical art installation is open year ‘round by appointment, the holiday season is the time to see it in all it’s glitter and shine, when the giant sculptures of robots, aliens, animals, and elves are lit up with literally millions of holiday lights. Irwin has created a mind-blowing and massive work, a wildly inventive space that evokes the set design of Tim Burton, Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World,” and sci-fi classics, all joined in holiday cheer.

Consisting of what the artist terms a thousand tons of art work, Irwin’s installation includes work in 43 different mediums. Irwin is fascinated with robots, microwaves, abandoned toilets, and household fixtures of all kinds. The fascination began early: at age 9 when Irwin built his first robotic creation, a ten foot tall creature made from wood with an antique telephone worn on its chest like armor.

Making these astonishing creations comes naturally to Irwin. “I always knew I was an artist, since I was a baby. It’s kind of like when a cat is a kitten, it knows it’s a cat.”

Irwin has big plans for Robolights, now that he’s defeated a Grinch-like plan to shut down his free public display. Irwin had to comply with what the city termed a “life/safety violation request” regarding the construction and installation of “potentially unsafe and dangerous structures.” On Facebook, Irwin posted “I want to thank everyone for their support. I am very grateful. On December 14, 2016, Riverside County Superior Court Judge David M. Chapman heard and denied the City of Palm Springs application for an order enjoining me from granting access to the general public to Robolights, at which time the entire Courtroom erupted with cheers and applause.”

That’s a relief. Irwin in his 30th year of the installation, brings a true Southern California holiday art experience. The exhibit’s freewheeling nature expands and shifts each year with new elements such as a floating white shark with a giant candy cane, tiny alien-like creatures in a light-strung boat floating on the swimming pool, a pirate Santa atop a hot pink tank vehicle being driven by Spider Man. Inside a white space pod, a glowing eyed mannequin hangs upside down and a glowing Easter Bunny mans a machine gun turret. Skeletal white spiders crawl across pink pet carriers in uneven stacks. A giant inflatable dinosaur glances over at a giant inflatable Santa waving from a camouflage-patterned tank. A giant clown face-facade yawns open mouthed. A Christmas tree is decorated with laser blasters. Tunnels of sparkling lights lead viewers to towers and trees, mannequins perched by giant pine cone-like sculptures, glowing train tracks built from shopping carts.

Irwin works at his art throughout the year, and says it takes several months to set up the holiday lights. Using recycled or donated materials to create his brilliant and surreal sculptures Irwin often makes some of his large sculptural pieces right on the spot.

“I visualize my works in my head, completely. Nothing is planned or stored indefinitely,” Irwin attests.

Many of his works are multi-layered, using discarded technology from microwaves to toilets to televisions to shape the forms of horses and robots, trucks and space ships. His attention to detail is astonishing especially given the large size of so many pieces. There’s a pure, child-like delight in his work, which is nonetheless complex in its execution. This is large scale, sculptural work designed with viewing pleasure in mind, while adhering to the unique vision of the artist. It’s a fairytale from outer space; a fusion of abstract art and pop icons.

Some of Irwin’s work was a part of a major exhibition in 2013 at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. To fit his enormous sculptures inside, the museum’s front doors and a wall were removed.

In fact, the artist hopes to create a Roboworld amusement park, with a year ‘round LED light display, a Valloween exhibit combining Halloween and Valentine themes, and much more.

Until he does you can get more information on Kenny Irwin and Robolights on his website.

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