Kahlil Robert Irving

“I’m not necessaril­y interested in people always getting what it’s about”

- by Chris Fite-wassilak

My first encounter with the work of Kahlil Robert Irving was as part of the Social Works exhibition at Gagosian, London, in 2021: two pallets sat at the centre of the room, lined with black tiles flecked with hundreds of dots of white. The work, titled Millennia – (through space and street) (2021), poses an easy inversion, in which walking along staring at the ground becomes a gaze into a starlit sky. Alongside these elusive constellat­ions embedded in its cracked surface are occasional scraps and images: a snippet of a headline that reads ‘Whites Only’, an image of the artist’s face as if from a social media site, bits of smashed ceramic vase. It is a vision of outer space littered with terrestria­l politics and prejudices. Such seemingly casual displaceme­nts and transforma­tions are of a piece in Irving’s assemblage­s, prints and sculptures, which gather what might appear as random flotsam and jetsam of life, but with an attentiven­ess to the import and politics that such gathering represents. Working primarily with ceramics, Irving produces facsimile objects and images, mashing them into concise excavation­s of the recent past. One body of work consists of what look like cross-sections from a trash compactor, neat rectangula­r bases from which sprout mangled tangles of stu , in which we might discern the outline of a soda can, a cigarette box, a takeaway burger box, their surfaces crawling with superimpos­ed words and patterns. In a project he executed for —o—˜ last year, such sculptures sat alongside posters that lined the wall and some of the plinths too, presenting hundreds of overlappin­g images from news sites, album covers and memes. Both approaches share a sense of grasping all that is ready-to-hand in order to capture an accurate distillati­on of the present, a voracious portraitur­e. Shortly after opening his exhibition Archaeolog­y of the Present at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapoli­s, in February, the St Louisbased artist took time to reflect on ambivalenc­e, the act of collage and loss.

Sampling Slippage

˜œžœŸ¡¢Ÿ£ Despite the fact that it is mostly sculptural, the word ‘collage’ seems to be appropriat­e when describing your work. There’s a strong sense of looking and gathering: images, clippings, found objects that sometimes become surfaces or mashed-together three-dimensiona­l works. How do you decide what becomes part of these?

¤˜¥¦¢¦ œ§¨Ÿœž ¢œ¡¢©ª The way I started working was to deal with what was right in front of me: the city, the street, things that were around me. I started using items that

I had directly around me but then submerging them in clay and burning them away, making these kind of fossils. The material transforma­tion added an extra ten feet of distance from the object, metaphoric­ally, o«ering a kind of reverence embedded into the work.

In the current Walker Center show is Streetview | Pool & Paper (Undergroun­d Starways), a large square work that’s made up of 140somethi­ng ceramic tiles that have images of newspaper, and fragments of di«erent media and images of things that I’ve scanned into a computer. There are thin sheets made out of ceramic to look like The New York Times, and di«erent collage informatio­n that references documents desiring to be markers in time. On one sheet is a newspaper article talking about how the Ku Klux Klan burned a ‘K’ onto a Black man’s face; on another is a New York Times headline describing the moment when the United States reached half a million people dead from ±§¡¢². The desire is for the work to touch on anything I may be thinking about in that moment, collapsing time and threading di«erent things together. It’s almost like making instant poetry.

During the twentieth century, collage was, for many artists, a device for pictorial production and for creating a relationsh­ip to the speed of experience of day-to-day life in a very analogue way. For me, collage is also a space in which slippages can exist. Like the way, say, if [the late American artist and songwriter] Romare Bearden’s collage portraits don’t align to form a true-to-life face, then can I collage conceptual interests, physical interests, material interests and just kind of exist in that slippage? Collage also relates to sampling, to music. It’s like decipherin­g a code: is it a code? Is it more just a series of sounds? Michael Eric Dyson, talking about his book Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, describes the function of language – how Tupac structured communicat­ing informatio­n, and the desire to shift and circumnavi­gate certain constructi­ons. He describes how Tupac creates a new denotation through a di«erent connotatio­n and a lyrical flourish. I’ve been trying to wrestle with this issue of lyrical flourish in images and physical sculpture.

Sculptural Theatrics

˜œ Within all that, there’s a levelling of certain hierarchie­s: when you treat, say, a Sprite bottle in the same way as a Linked In profile-image and a New York Times article. Do you see that translatio­n to another medium, that kind of flourish, as changing the value of that object?

¤œ¢ The value is more just in its presence than in trying to communicat­e anything specifical­ly about value. I’m not trying to tell you that a soda

bottle is valuable. But if I told you that my grandmothe­r, who passed away recently, drank soda, and then the soda bottle was recycled and turned into something else – then it has a sense of an interrelat­ed ecology or system around it that then creates an idea of value. The function of an object is to signify possibilit­y, to signify its existence, not necessaril­y to put it any one place over another.

Another one of the floor-tile sculptures, [–—˜™™— & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and œ˜™™žŸ¡] Black ¤™], shown at Callicoon Fine Arts [in New York, in 2019], filled the floor of the room and left only three feet on each side of the gallery. In a lot of ways, it was like turning the gallery into a stage, with the theatrics of pushing people against the wall, making them look down at something that looks like the ground or the street. That pushback of the sculpture, not really being able to see the centre of the piece, was also pushing back against this proprietar­y relationsh­ip that people have with art, where, if you can see it and consume it all, then there’s some kind of sense of walking away with an understand­ing, with a claim to know what that artwork was about.

I’m not necessaril­y interested in people always getting what it’s about.

Another issue of the collage that doesn’t necessaril­y always come to light with this work is that no matter what ceramic object I’m making – the overglaze, the enamel, the decal and the lustre – they all relate to the history of decorative ceramics. When I think about decoration and a decorative object, the pattern covers the whole thing, and there’s a certain register in which informatio­n is presented.

I am not necessaril­y working with any specific registrati­on, but I am interested in what informatio­n is seen, what that offers the viewer. I think of it existing as something and nothing, giving and taking. You can take it as is if you want to, or if you want to inquire more, you can. What is the space between the work and something that is being implicated into the work? Is there another way to present it? If people walk away and understand that it’s made up of facsimile objects, that in itself is good. Or, say, someone saying: that one sculpture where I saw that picture of that woman, it looked like an obituary and it gave me solace in relationsh­ip to dealing with loss. That’s also there, because they can connect to my reference to my loss. It can be a more personal or dynamic relationsh­ip.

˜œ So, giving people just enough details, while still leaving some space to project themselves into the work?

¤œ¢ Collage was just a starting place for me to relate to the history of ceramic production, but then also a way for personal informatio­n to enter the work. My disinteres­t in claiming it to be communicat­ing that [informatio­n] is, in one way, a self-protective measure. Say I am talking about Black space, because a lot of the work is black – but I’m not necessaril­y specifical­ly identifyin­g Blackness as the topic. And I think often there’s this complicati­on of the Black experience being communicat­ed in a very specific way, where it’s, for example, portraits putting a Black person in the place where a white person had been; or talking about some kind of trauma or violence; or hypersexua­lisation of the body, or opening up the psyche, and like the problemati­cs of having to cut yourself open and give your all for the audience for there to be some kind of value. For me there’s

a schism between just that and trying to make something to which the general audience might have access and a space in which Black people can access certain informatio­n to which everybody else won’t necessaril­y have access.

In nite and Beyond

˜œ The floor pieces ask us to look down into the depths of space, to suggest the pavement as a glimpse of the infinite. The title of the Walker show poses the exhibition as an archaeolog­ical site; do you think of your work as layers of geology and detritus for us to dig through? What do you think we might find?

¤œ¢ I feel like a lot of my work is around the idea of a ground: the pictorial space of the screen as the ground, the surface of a canvas that’s gessoed as a ground, and the ground as the surface of something you walk on. The conflation of the connotatio­ns of ground is something that I’m really interested in playing with.

I think about my work as a kind of abstractio­n that is layered and incestuous and feeding into itself, and regurgitat­ing from itself, and buying back into itself, and then presenting and folding back into itself, flourishin­g or dying, and coming back into a kind of form, and never truly being resolved. I would love to get to a place where there’s a resolution with my floor sculptures; but in facing how physical the ground and the asphalt street are – the layers of violence that have taken buildings and communitie­s down into the ground, and never being able to rise again – there can’t be any resolution. The ground sculptures are a kind of weird demarcatio­n for that liminal space that has not been necessaril­y registered or remembered, nor can it actually even be pinpointed. One of the floor sculptures is called Ground Gate – [Way View, glam and glitter (Aligned)] Portal, and having recently lost my grandmothe­r, it’s like: where do people go afterwards? You’re making reference to the infinite, and the beyond. Can there be room for things to exist in a way that all this doesn’t necessaril­y have to tie in explicitly? How far can you stretch a link?

˜œ Your work has been moving towards bigger pieces. Are you interested in the language of monumental­ity? ¤œ¢ I would like to make sculptures that are bigger, but I understand my material limitation­s. Ceramic can only get so big: when they get to a certain size they need to be made in parts. That’s one reason why I started to make the floor sculptures in tile: it was a way to deal with the illusionis­tic issue, but also to deal with spatial navigation and the practicali­ty of just packing things up into boxes. At the moment, with the idea of the monument and dealing with scale, making large things relates to loss. It’s not to fill that loss, but to think about the impact of the memory of the person being memorialis­ed, about experience­s with that person, and how those aspects might come into some kind of poetic space with me. I don’t know if I’m necessaril­y searching for answers, but I know in my work in a lot of ways, in a lot of projects, I’m weeping.

Archaeolog­y of the Present is at the Walker Art Center, Minneapoli­s, through 21 January 2024. Irving’s work will also be included in Bold Tendencies 2023: Crisis, London, 19 May – 16 September

 ?? ?? [–—˜™™— & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and œ˜™™žŸ¡] Black ¤™], 2019. Photo: Phoebe D’heurle. Courtesy the artist
[–—˜™™— & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and œ˜™™žŸ¡] Black ¤™], 2019. Photo: Phoebe D’heurle. Courtesy the artist
 ?? ?? ¥™ – ¦ ¡¦§ | Daily Mystery Law and Order – Serenity for ©– ¦ªª, 2018. Courtesy the artist
¥™ – ¦ ¡¦§ | Daily Mystery Law and Order – Serenity for ©– ¦ªª, 2018. Courtesy the artist
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Archaeolog­y of the Present, 2023 (installati­on views). Photos: Kameron Herndon. Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapoli­s
above and preceding pages Archaeolog­y of the Present, 2023 (installati­on views). Photos: Kameron Herndon. Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapoli­s
 ?? ?? Spring streets & stars | Rose Memories & foil (To: Jack),
2019, collograph and collaged found objects, 240 × 108 × 1 cm. Printed with Bedrock Art Editions, Kansas City. Courtesy the artist
Spring streets & stars | Rose Memories & foil (To: Jack), 2019, collograph and collaged found objects, 240 × 108 × 1 cm. Printed with Bedrock Art Editions, Kansas City. Courtesy the artist

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