Kahlil Robert Irving Understands the Present by Looking to the Past – ARTnews.com

Kahlil Robert Irving creates ceramic sculptures that mimic everyday objects and built structures. In his latest exhibition at the Walker Art Center, titled “Archaeology of the Present,” the St. Louis–based artist has made new work that recalls asphalt roads and brick chimneys. Presenting these ceramics as finds that viewers can observe on a multi-level platform primarily from a bird’s eye view, the work appears like an archaeological site.

In breaking down the commonplace, Irving suggests, one can gain a deeper understanding of the world in which we currently live. By flattening, layering, and stacking his materials, Irving pushes the bounds of ceramics to create tactile surfaces unlike the kinds we’re used to.

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A young light-skinned Black man with glasses and long curly hair sits at a wooden table with various mixed-media sculptures by him. He wears a light blue oxford shirt and there is an American flag behind him.

“Archaeology of the Present” is currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through January 21, 2024. Shortly after the show opened in February, ARTnews spoke to Irving about the influence of archaeology, the true nature of abstraction, and how best to engage his viewer.

ARTnews: How did the concept of archaeology inform the exhibition?

Kahlil Robert Irving: I wanted to explore this discrepancy of investigating and understanding, and to create an experience that would bring the viewer into the installation.

I’ve been thinking about these historical mosaics from Antioch, Turkey, which I saw at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2017, as well as my memories of visiting the site where Jesus was born and seeing the church that was erected on that location in Jerusalem. There was scaffolding that allowed visitors to be elevated above the mosaics that were being revealed.

There’s a lot happening in this show. I know some of the works are rooted in ceramics, while others are models that viewers can physically look down into. How did you decide to go about making these works?

The platform is doing a couple things. One is to make it something that people could walk up onto, where certain details would be revealed to the public. The other part of it is to challenge the modes of looking done before. The abstraction is just this kind of negotiation of the platform being a stage or a setting for a certain kind of landscape. Adding my own sculptures into the platform allowed me to create this kind of larger-than-life game board. This experiential opportunity is an abstraction of my memory—one that forces the viewer to deal only with it incrementally in parts that have been reinterpreted and assembled in the space.

There’s also this aspect of revealing specifically with three tile-based ceramic sculptures, Ground Gate – [Way View, glam and glitter (aligned)] Portal [2023], Streetview | Pool & Paper (Underground star ways) [2023], and Soul on Stars (******) [2023], in which flattened ceramics are made to look like asphalt.

You are employing so many different methods of working within the medium of ceramics to create these experiences.

Yes. Six out of seven works are ceramic, but there are four different ways ceramic exists in the show. I made the floor tiles by hand pressing clay. Tube & Chimney / Wonder fragments (asphalt | mine media views) [2019–23] was assembled in the studio, while Monument {from an act to a void} [2023] is an industrially produced ceramic object that’s made to look like a big pipe by a factory in Phoenix. Stele [(A scraper)] [2023] is a large wall fragment, similar to a chimney, made of ceramic tile that looks like brick.

Some of these works look like found objects, but they’re not. For example, Monument {from an act to a void} is made just like a pipe that’s 42 inches in diameter. So, in theory, people could stand inside it. Ceramics are part of the built world. I’m trying to extend my practice to align with this contemporary use and function in an industrial capacity that reflects our lived experience.

How has living in St. Louis impacted the development of your work? 

It comes through in some parts of the work, particularly in how it relates to the platform itself. In dealing with protests, government, and theatre and entertainment, the platform is a stage. It’s the foundation, like the ground beneath us. The works inside the platform act as players or experiences. They’re fragments of a greater whole. And so, St. Louis is a setting. There are parts of it that you can take apart and put together in different ways. That is creating an abstraction—taking something of the real and understanding it for its parts and then disseminating information that you would like to be more specifically acknowledged, understood, and rediscovered.

I’m interested in using ceramics as a conceptual tool to make my works appear as if they’ve been taken directly from the world. I’m trying to connect the history of ceramic and industrial ceramic production to the issues of contemporary life. I’m relating the construction of a brick chimney that looks like a skyscraper in St. Louis to a stele, which is a historically carved piece of stone meant to demarcate an important event or moment in time. That said, I’m not interested in simply telling the viewer exactly what it is, but giving a memorial or a moment to many things simultaneously. St. Louis is present but also absent in the work at the same time because the references that I’m making extend beyond this city and the present moment.

What drove you to create opportunities for viewer interaction?

It evolved from previous presentations and installations of my work. I have done several installations with works presented on platforms or pedestals and I wanted to continue to push further modes of presentation.

My last exhibition at [the now-defunct New York gallery] Callicoon Fine Arts in 2019, for example, included the largest work I’ve ever made, titled [STREET & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and FREEDOM] Black ICE], 2019, at 9-and-a-half by 16 feet. That work was presented on a large wooden structure recalling truss bridges and accordion construction, but the scale is much smaller than a real-life truss bridge. With the gallery only being 20 feet wide, the piece took up most of the space and pushed the viewer to the edge of the room. In this iteration at the Walker, however, it’s a platform in which the viewer can be in the middle.

That’s a very big difference, to have people go from being pushed to the fringes to being invited in to look around and over top of these works.

Right, but they’re still not getting full access because in a lot of ways the artworks also relate to a bigger whole.

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