Since 2011, artist Kahlil Robert Irving has built an extensive multimedia series called “Street Views.” It spans monotype prints of caution fences to collages of images from the internet to reimagined American flags. Irving’s best-known works in the series are his ceramic sculptures, which feature decals, protuberances that recall takeout containers and empty plastic bottles, and bits of newspaper. “‘Street Views’ is broad in the material investigative sense, but also quite specific and some of the things that I have been able to accomplish and construct so far,” Irving said. If he demonstrates an omnivorous attitude towards materials, his singular approach to artmaking prevails throughout the series: Irving’s practice explores political issues and asks questions about contemporary life in a way that’s impactful without striving for a specific outcome.
The St. Louis–based artist explained that he isn’t so much creatively inspired as he is attuned to the world around him and his own shifting interior landscape. “I think our lives tell us a lot of different things,” he said, “and we can choose to listen to them and engage in them, or we continue to ignore them like the white supremacist society in which we live has taught us to do.” Irving has chosen the former approach. His multimedia work isn’t meant to be performative, but to offer possibilities for change.
Irving has come a long way since he began experimenting with pottery at the age of 12. In recent years, the Kansas City Art Institute alumnus has participated in solo and group exhibitions around the country. Most recently, he created work for a solo show at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco, “Mixed Messages (Streets & Screens) AOL + Lottery,” which was postponed due to COVID-19. New York’s Callicoon Fine Arts has mounted two solo presentations of his work, and the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center recently commissioned him to make an installation for their lobby.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is exhibiting Irving’s ceramic sculpture 100’s (2018) in its much-lauded show “Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950–2019.” The abstract piece comprises glazed and unglazed stoneware and porcelain; opal, silver, and blue luster; and decals. In one corner, Irving placed a Newport cigarette box logo upside down to look like the Nike swoosh, while a newsprinted, gourd-like form juts from the side. According to Irving, the news item references the “violence being committed against people in their community.” The complicated, rough-edged, gold-speckled amalgamation simultaneously evokes refuse and treasure. As he does throughout his practice, Irving has coupled personal and cultural signifiers in work that’s both beguiling and unnerving.
The artist thinks of his ceramics as transportation devices—ways for him to share information with his viewers. As he employs ceramic, printed, and digital media, he embraces a unique sense of separation from the materials he uses in his work. “I don’t have a proprietary relationship to clay, because these materials are all being mined from the earth for industrial applications,” he explained. “They’re not being produced for me.”
Though Irving is hesitant to relate his work to his own biography, he’s more comfortable speaking about his connection with his environment. He shared that St. Louis is important to him both because of his personal memories, and also because of the “histories that are recalled over and over again” there. “It’s a city that was built by Black people, making bricks in factories that were owned by white folks,” he said. “Black people couldn’t own the land or even the buildings that they were building.”
Irving’s artwork, and his individual expression through industrial materials, pushes against that history. He strives to participate in the world around him and rupture the stereotypes that perpetuate American—particularly African American—culture.
Look closely at Irving’s ornate ceramics, and you’ll find news items about cops acquitted after murdering African American men, labels of the St. Louis–produced Vess soda, a ruptured image of an American flag, and a miniature “Black Lives Matter” sign. The works become microcosms of contemporary concerns and consumerist culture, asking viewers to reconsider the world around them. Yet Irving also knows how difficult it is to alter perceptions, and he likened being an artist to throwing a rock. “That rock may fall short, that rock may go the distance, or it can go further than expected,” he said. “And then you walk behind it to pick it up again, and you keep walking, and that’s life.”
In lockdown, Irving has turned his attention to the virtual world in a new way. He’s currently collaborating with artist Richard Munaba (in conjunction with the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University) on an interactive digital exhibition that draws on Twitter sources to chart the exponential increase of Coronavirus cases in New York City. Titled Safetyfirst & Fantasies_BLOCKCHAIN (2020–present), the work juxtaposes clips and web pages about Blockchain, Netflix, TikTok, the New York City subway, and Lil Wayne with images of protesters angered by racial injustices. The exhibition encourages viewers’ participation: On the site, they can play music, check Bitcoin’s price, and scroll through a curated list of tweets. Like all of Irving’s work, the project focuses on problems of contemporary life, and ways to build a better world.
Irving’s institutional support continues to grow, and the artist is currently working on multiple exhibitions and projects for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Katzen Arts Center at American University, and MASS MoCA, among other museums and galleries. “Right now, I’m in the middle of quite a few things,” said Irving. “I’m trying to figure out in my studio practice—and just in my engagement in life—how I can add more agency to the work I do, just as a person participating in the world.”