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Something Beautiful Waiting There for You: A Conversation with Kahlil Robert Irving

Kahlil Robert Irving, Thelma Golden, Legacy Russell

Kahlil Robert Irving, Black and Yellow - CAUTION, 2021

Thelma Golden: Kahlil, tell us about how you make what you make.

Kahlil Robert Irving: The project consists of wallpaper, digital collage print on paper, ceramic sculptures made out of objects from my studio, and handmade pressed ceramic tiles. There are a couple of works on aluminum panel, vinyl adhered to panel, and vinyl adhered to MDF panel. Then another series of images on aluminum panel. The images on the wallpaper range from photographs to movie stills and television shows, to the information I've sourced on Google Images including flags, historical quilts, and images of protests in response to events occurring in St. Louis. There are also images of my family and AI or CGI-built environments of cities or landscapes. There’s a lot of pixelization, a lot of repetition, and a lot of different colors. The data of all this imagery creates an experience of navigating physical and immaterial spaces that can coexist simultaneously.

Most of this work grew from visiting New York City for the first time in 2011 when I was a freshman in college. I'd never been on a plane before and when I looked out from the airplane, I saw how the roads partitioned the earth. I flew over lower Manhattan and into Queens and the experience of seeing the vertical structures protruding from the Earth’s surface was inspiring. So, I made these drawings that conflated the verticality of the buildings and the horizontality of the partitioned land. Then I drew a constructive perspective merging the two. I’m constantly taking one thing and blending it or forcing it to live with another. Making ceramics look like something else from life comes from that first experience of making these constructed perspective drawings in 2011.

I’ve been making things out of clay since I was twelve years old. At first, I didn't necessarily think what I was doing was making art; I thought of myself as a student learning a process: managing the clay, throwing it on the wheel, trimming the dried-out clay to make it more refined, then processing the material. The sculptures in this installation also have the residue of this experience—of becoming a student of the material and stewarding it through its myriad capabilities or means of existence. The images applied to the surfaces are a more recent experience of learning what's possible.

Some of the works on panel were a part of other installations, which is a reference to the feedback loop. I scan images back into the computer, as a way of bringing where I’ve been into where I’m going. I reuse photos taken by relatives as a means to re-encapsulate not only someone else's energy but my own energy and experience as well.

An exhibition installation of digital prints
Installation view of Projects: Kahlil Robert Irving. Photo: David Almeida

Legacy Russell: Your work can be everlasting. There are always citations inside of the citations. Process inside of process. You’re underscoring the relationship between body and machine. You as the creator and the ways various technology informs your process. This allows us to turn to what I will call "idols" in the room. Can you talk about the influence certain artists have had on your work?

KRI: I studied a lot of ceramics during my undergraduate program. There was a fissure between the conversation of contemporary art and what it meant to be a good ceramic artist that was always at odds with me. During the day, I would listen to the all-white faculty at school, and at night I would listen to lectures in the studio while I was working on my assignments or trying to figure out my relationship to the lesson or whatever the prompt may have been. One of the most important lectures I kept going back to was a talk Kerry James Marshall gave at the MCA Chicago in 2016.

Robert Gober and Glenn Ligon both present the possibility of poetry and language as a means to ferociously push through materiality. What I've learned from Nam June Paik can't be put into words because it's experiential; it's fleeting moments that live in the emotional block in my body. When I interact with Paik’s work, it hits in that place. I'm willing to submit. There are also teachers, elders in the community, such as my grandmother, and my great grandmother who I learn from. Every day I come to the studio I’m getting closer to being present. Not only with the work, but with the experiences people are willing to share with me. 

LR: In your titling, there are moments where St. Louis is mentioned outright. For example, with Arches & standards (Stockley ain’t the only one) Meissen Matter : STL matter (2018). Other works operate at a different sonic register, like Star Wars (Street Wars) (2019) where the material of St. Louis comes into the room. Can you share with us those different registers and readership of St. Louis across your work?

KRI: Some of the works I made in New York and some I made in St. Louis. The references within the sculpture Arches & standards (Stockley ain’t the only one) Meissen Matter : STL matter were made in response to a police officer named Jason Stockley who was acquitted for [the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith] in 2011. I made a direct choice in acknowledging a perpetrator instead of solely memorializing the victim. To use the site of the museum as a place to hold people accountable who haven't been held accountable.

There's been a lot of displacement [in St. Louis], a lot of architectural rearranging, a lot of decay, even just along the seven blocks between my studio and house. There's a single-screen movie theater that was built in the twentieth century for immigrants who moved to St. Louis to work for Anheuser-Busch but it's been derelict for a long time. That affects people psychically. Star Wars (Street Wars) references Antioch mosaics from Turkey. I’m interested in the capacity of a material to tell contemporary, secular, and political narratives, especially with a material that exists in such a broad, architecturally-based engagement, but that can also be used to make art.

Many people are writing books about [St. Louis] and dealing with its political landscape, but no one is [making work about] its past existing simultaneously with its present. That’s why St. Louis is a big part [of the exhibition]. There was a race massacre [the East St. Louis Riots in 1917] that occurred just a few miles away from where I live. A lot of people talk about Greenwood, about Tulsa, but they don't talk about East St. Louis, even though more people died, more homes destroyed, more people displaced, and the legacy of the area is still tarnished as a violent place. That violent finger has been pointed toward the Black people and the Black residents in its contemporary existence, instead of talking about the white neighbors who committed those first acts of violence a hundred years ago. The vacancy of responsibility, when thinking about St. Louis, and its physical and historical landscapes are very important to me. I didn't choose to grow up here, but I think this inherited possibility has added such richness to my life.

A mixed media sculpture
Kahlil Robert Irving. Arches & standards (Stockley ain’t the only one) Meissen Matter : STL matter, 2018. Photo: David Almeida

TG: There is so much power in these inherited histories we carry. I want you to hone in on the relationship between blackness and technology, something you underscore. The engagement of Black people as technology, the relationship between blackness and the machine of capitalism, and the innovation of Black people as contributions to culture, history, and thought in advancing technology. How does your process of production as an artist working through these mediums speak to, respond to, and resonate with the ideas of blackness and technology?

KRI: I live not too far away from Scott Joplin's house. He wrote all this music that was [used on] the first player pianos. The player piano technology is akin to Jacquard weaving, and Jacquard weaving was the first iteration of computer technology. My family has mostly been workers, makers, and supporters of other people's visions. My grandmother was a great baker. She didn't write her recipes down, but she made delicious food; when you tasted it, you knew it was hers. She took joy in putting ingredients together. In a most simple engagement with technology, I was affected by that experience of her making something for us, for me and my relatives. I don't know everything in terms of material capability, so I lean on others who are more experienced. My relationship to technology is a relationship to community, what I’ve inherited, similar to my grandmother.

Take the School for Poetic Computation. They aren’t just teaching people how to deal with computers or code, they're teaching people how to build a community for everyone to think through something together as a group. That’s technological, where the invention is tied to developing and continuing the legacy and the growth of what has come before us.

LR: Kahlil, I'm bowled over. I'm going to try to gain my composure so I can ask you the next question because what you’re saying is so thoughtful. I want to turn to sound because you’ve spoken about your love of music. Funny you mentioned School for Poetic Computation because I was walking to meet American Artist [who teaches there] and you happened to call me. I said to you, "Kahlil, I'm underneath the train that goes down Broadway in Brooklyn. I'm so sorry that you can hear the train sound." And you said, "I don't mind."

The sound was going for our entire call. I chuckled because you didn’t break your focus on what you wanted to communicate to me as I was having that conversation. I think it speaks to this experience of you letting the world run through you, allowing yourself to process different types of information. To think about how that becomes part of these concentric circles you're shaping. These rhythms inside of rhythms. There’s so much to listen to inside of your work, which is an amazing experience given it’s a site without sound. Can you help me wrap my head around that?

KRI: I do have to say, I played baritone saxophone for four years.

LR: There you go. There you go.

KRI: Most memories I have, including memories I don't want to have anymore, all carry some kind of sound or music. One of my earliest memories is riding in a Cadillac in the big front seat where everybody can sit. There were no seat belts. I was in the car with my brother and sisters, and my mother bought a soda we all shared. But somebody had a cold sore, so no one else could drink it. Aaliyah came on the radio. We're driving down the street and this music is playing through the speakers.

In BloodSky& MOON, Streams+trees\from the ground&above**** (2021) there's a view of an aisle at a grocery store that looks like tunnel vision. It reminds me of that drive in the car with my mother; the vision of that memory is very blurry. After the memories of living with my mother, the next set of memories belongs to my grandmother. That's why there's this very small photograph of my great aunts and my grandmother in the distance of that grocery store image.

There's a big screenshot of Zhane’s You're Sorry Now album from the 90s. That's the first CD I ever got. My dad took it from my grandmother in our old apartment. I ended up taking it from him and I have no plans on giving it back because my grandmother's going to come to live with me. I have shepherded it for the last several years; now I can return it to her. Listening to rap, hip hop, and R&B from the 60s to now, you hear all these references to historical music. My visual constructions use references, like music, to make something new. Some of the most painful things I've experienced in my life, and the most beautiful things I've experienced in my life, all revolve around music.

TG:  Those hidden codes and cues act as a kind of layering. What is, if any, the distinction for you between meme, citation, footnote, echo, simulation, and imitation as you engage collage as a practice of working, but also as a practice of being? A lot of what you are evidencing now is thinking about collage as a way of being.

KRI: I think of the echo as a vestige of something else. My sculptural works do several of these things at the same time. The difference between a meme, a citation, and a footnote, is that they all have a different architecture. In the ceramic sculptures, there’s one moment where a footnote and citation exist at the same time in a couple of ways. The decorative white ceramic objects in some of the sculptures have floral motifs on the exterior of them. I used the factory printed material on the side of those so you know what and where those things come from, but you also get the reference to the information or the historical decorative ornamental imagery they’re appropriating.

TG:      Can you describe your relationship as an artist to modernism?

KRI: When I think about modernism, I always think about when someone is trying to describe modern in relationship to a capital M, Modernity, and Modernism as a philosophical movement in art, architecture, design, and culture. I could be described as a complicator of it, but then, someone could also say I'm a lover, and an aficionado of it, that I exist in both spaces.

LR: I want to touch on the relationships between artist and artisan, craft and folk, as you’re grappling with this idea of high and low art. These complicated canons come with a lot of volatility. Some of what your work does is push, in different directions, these categories. How you’re thinking about what the citations are, how you're pointing to different parts of history, is embedded in that pushing back.

KRI: A lot of it starts with communities. The pottery studio became a place where I could be excited by something, or something could be revealed to me that I had no idea could exist. As a twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year-old, the kiln was the best technology I had ever seen. I could never have imagined that you could open a kiln and something beautiful would be there waiting for you. It also allowed me a kind of freedom. Then, going to college, all these titles, frames of looking, and constructions of ideological and political stratifications defined what I was doing as limiting. As a result, my community, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother taught me how to continue to find my way.

I’m always thinking about the history of craft and the political and institutional implications and constructions of what it is, but also the cultural and social spaces in which craft exists. In certain spaces, you don't need to mention [craft] at all. I'm mentioning it now because I'm here, and I don't hear anybody else mentioning it. If I ever have an exhibition at MoMA again, I won't have to say it. Now it's on the record. I wanted to assert that these things could relate to each other on the record so that I can help [remove] the baggage that affects many other artists. Let them know that someone is communicating with and through their frustration. To make room for people like Nellie Mae Rowe, James Sanford Thomas, and our Missouri local Jesse Howard, to be able to sit at the table and be welcome. Because I come from a place of difference. That's what has allowed me to know that it's okay for me to be here. They deserve the room too.

A mixed media ceramic sculpture
Kahlil Robert Irving. My Mattered Mass -[MixedColorReflections/ (GoldenRings)- NEWSclips+EYEMATTER], 2021. Photo: David Almeida

LR: In this moment where we're split in attention across many different platforms, where even in sitting and having this conversation with you here with multiple windows open on my laptop, there is the possibility to be pulled from “the room” or the presence you spoke of earlier.

KRI: A big part of the exhibition is speed—the speed at which you navigate through the room, and the layering of things on top of each other, read as a swiftness. The layering of things also relates to the swiping of screens and turning of pages. In the exhibition, those motions are collapsed, those pages can no longer be turned. The motion of moving through the screen or passing through something on the computer has been rendered still. It's akin to a long exposure as if the ceramic encapsulates these motions simultaneously and flattens them into a moment.

TG: That's so resonant to me, Kahlil. Engaging with your work has given me a sense of the unique generational sensibility of the screen. Your work presents a visual vocabulary [to that], and an experiential corollary, which I find profound. To be able to imagine this artistic rendering of a condition that we are in many ways still coming to terms with. The sky and the ground are both present in the exhibition. What does it mean to you to ask people to look up and down, as well as to have these experiences inverted by shifting the position of what's supposed to be in each place? How do you want this project to be experienced in the body, through the mind, through looking and seeing?

KRI: The orientation of the sky and the ground came into the work as a means of trying to create a built, imaginative world. This installation is metaphysical and spiritual because of that inversion you reference. It makes the ground close to the plane on which we're walking, almost like we’re in the heavens. I shared in another interview that I make room for one thing to be a risk or a challenge that I present to myself in the work. Not everything has a point. I take risks by allowing the sky image to be so large and close to us, or the asphalt to look similar to the star-scape in relationship to it. I’m still unpacking what I want someone to take away from this. I’m still wrestling with it.