Rico Duenas, the artist, and his lights. Photo by Gabriela Quirós

Rico Duenas never thought of himself as an artist. A union electrician who lives in Potrero Hill, he’s long pursued a hobby of building lamps from cast-off materials that he gathers while walking around the neighborhood or buys from various sources. 

“The Alemany Flea Market is my favorite place in the city,” Duenas said.     

Much to his surprise and delight, his playful, industrial-chic creations have found an ideal setting at 500 Capp St., where they blend in seamlessly amidst the found objects, exposed materials, and savvy use of lighting in the David Ireland House. On display through Sept. 25, when the house is open for free tours and self-guided visits Wednesday through Saturday, the exhibition Light Repair enhances everything strange and wondrous about the Victorian abode that Ireland transformed into a work-in-progress installation between his arrival in 1975 and his mortal departure in 2009.

The house is filled with Ireland’s alternately rough-hewn and finely worked creations and sometimes revolting artifacts (a jar filled with nail clippings tilts the balance from idiosyncratic to obsessive). A match made in urban scavenger heaven, Duenas came to the attention of the David Ireland House’s recently appointed curator Lian Ladia via visual artist David Wilson, who inaugurated an extended residency program there earlier in the year. Ladia knew she’d found an ideal match at her first meeting with Duenas.   

“He walked in and started making repairs, fixing some of David Ireland’s lights,” she said, noting that Ireland worked as a stage designer and used lighting throughout the house to subtle but dramatic effect.

Ireland’s work brims with deadpan wit, from the plaques commemorating damage done to various spots on floors and walls to his own industrial lamp with a box switch mounted on top. A particularly inspired piece features a cracked window pane placed so that the fracture casts a shadow on a blank wall. It’s a winking tribute to “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” a signature work by Marcel Duchamp, whose readymade aesthetic was Ireland’s catnip. 

Deunas created his works specifically for the house. Some of his pieces amplify the existing décor, with several lamps featuring wavy, biomorphic arms built out of copper plumbing pipe, a material that Ireland favored. 

A work by Rico Duenas at the David Ireland House. Photo by Gabriela Quirós.

Others transform it, like a small red bulb in the attic that suffuses the room with a scarlet glow visible from the street. 

Light is everything in the David Ireland House, where the deep amber of the lacquered walls seems to generate a soft luminescence. With large windows in many of the rooms, “the light changes every hour,” Ladia said.

A twilight tour on Sept. 9 offers a chance to experience the house in crepuscular transition. In addition to his exhibition, Duenas is setting up a Light Repair Shop in the house’s garage every Saturday. Anyone can bring in a broken lamp for him to repair from noon to  5 p.m. Word was already out when the exhibition opened on Sept. 4, as Paula, a neighborhood resident, waited for the garage door to slide open with a large, battered lamp that would no longer light. Duenas had it working again in less than three minutes. By 1 p.m., the workshop was full of people seeking illumination. 

“Always remember to check the bulb,” said Duenas, 33, who’s offering a Lamp Making Workshop on Sept 25 for the exhibition’s conclusion. “Even my friends who ask me to fix a lamp will swear they’ve changed the bulb, but it turns out that’s what was wrong.”

He built his first lamp in 2008, not long after a brief run at Chico State left him certain only that he was not destined for college in the near future. “After that I just said ‘yes’ and tried a million things,” he said, including landscaping, barista-ing, customer service at American Apparel, and photo assisting. Finally, his love of wiring lamps led to an apprenticeship as an electrician and eventually the union gig.

“Through all that time of testing, I continuously used the light sculptures as my creative outlet,” he said. “It’s always been something for myself. An escape from social pressures of what you ‘should’ be doing. Plus, I always just liked making and putting things together.”

Duenas’s work breaking down the arbitrary barriers between fine art, craft, and everyday objects seems like a pursuit that David Ireland would have appreciated and supported. With a mandate to find new ways to use and feature 500 Capp St., Ladia said there are lots of other interesting projects in the works. But for the next two weeks, the David Ireland House will be keeping a light on for you.  

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1 Comment

  1. Go Rico Go!! You don’t have to think of yourself as an artist, just keep making your ideas real! The rest of us can ooh and ahhh. I want to barter someday. Hooray for You and your curiosity ,courage, and know how.

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