From South City To Venice: Introducing Potter And Provocateur Kahlil Irving

Taking a step into artist Kahlil Irving’s dimly lit basement studio on Washington University in St. Louis’ Danforth Campus, one is struck by the thought that no amount of box-store fluorescence can dull the brilliance of his latest installation. Lined up atop a bolted wooden structure standing five feet high, row after row of black vases shine down like giant chess pieces. Arranged as they are just out of reach, the urns impose the sense that in this space we are but toddlers learning to walk.

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The effect is intentional. “The work is this big because I want it to be that you can’t get by it,” Irving explains. “These are domesticized objects, but presented here, they can’t be used as domesticized objects.”

Gesturing up at the rows above, Irving holds forth on some of the concerns that guide his methodology. “A lot of these objects are influenced by historic European ceramic or porcelain vases—they were highly decorative and ornate. Europeans used these terms to perpetuate a type of narrative—of white fragility, to keep the poor down, and keep the rich rich. So I thought, ‘What if I take those same forms and add something of my own? How can I break the understanding of porcelain as white and fragile?’”

One answer is to paint them all black, though “paint” isn’t exactly accurate; each vase is coated in the same glaze but fired differently. The result is a spectrum of blacks that reflect light differently from various angles. Some of the blacks are opaque, while others shimmer like an old-school car or edgy ‘90s nail polish. Light reflecting off the objects takes on gray, gold and coppery tones.

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As Irving carefully describes the different ways in which silt and the various glazes interact with heat, he links his technical approach to contemporary events that matter to him—be they the recent university student uprisings in Columbia, Missouri, or the research he’s conducted in downtown East St. Louis on the 1917 race riots with documentarian and professor Denise Ward Brown. The piece we’re gazing up at now is called “Before and After Sundown, Town,” a reference to St. Louis’ history as one of many 20th century “sundown towns”—locations where the law prohibited black citizens from being in certain neighborhoods after dark.

“Glaze is a skin; it’s not in the clay, it’s on the clay,” the artist points out. “If the glaze is the skin, then these objects can be thought of as black people in a congregation or on a march.” Indeed, the fact that all of the objects stand orderly and erect in rows gives the sense of organized movement. Irving is quick to explain how this series of scaffolded works have similarly politically charged titles: “’49er’s (Dead Soldiers),” “ConcernedStudent1950: or The Johnson Family Reunion,” and “X,” made of two intersecting ten-foot tables.

Growing up in St. Louis city and training at the Potter’s Workshop in Forest Park Southeast and Craft Alliance as an adolescent, Irving’s sense of himself as a maker doesn’t comply with distinctions between art and craft. “I am a potter, but I am not limited to or by X, Y, and Z,” he insists. Along the same lines, he has a problem with conventional distinctions between art and craft, as though anything deemed “craft” is intrinsically lesser. “Craft is actually a verb. You craft something, you go to craft,” he says. “It’s really challenging for me to see and deal with how the meaning of craft has been transformed. It’s as though ‘either you’re an artist or you just make stuff.’ It’s degrading.”

At the time of this interview, Irving was embarking on an artist residency at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica (International Graphics School) in Venice, where he planned to devote six weeks to a printmaking, painting and bookmaking residency. “Going to Italy gives me the freedom to spend time learning more about what I studied in undergrad. As a double major in art history and art, it’s an opportunity to see the buildings and art I’ve read about.”

Despite the piazza-riddled romance of the City of Water, Irving had no plans to neglect the exigencies of the world he was to leave behind. In Venice, he would work on a series of prints in response to “black as a color” with relation to the July shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Committed to an art practice that explores the “constant slaughter of black people,” Irving doesn’t mince words when it comes to what he’s about and what art traditions he intends to mindfully subvert. “We have to remember that capital-A art was made by Europeans, and it isn’t right to alienate those who aren’t engaging that narrative. If people are not engaging that narrative, but what they’re making is innovative and challenging—it’s art.”

At 24, Irving speaks about his practice with an impressive level of clarity. “I’ve been a potter for 12 years,” he emphasizes. “My acts of making come from a knowledge of the history of ceramic objects—I seek to design and create things that others haven’t made before, to collapse the history of ceramic objects and how those objects were used not only for function, but for politics.”

Including “Before and After…” along with the new prints from Venice, Irving will present his first solo show at the Bruno David gallery opening September 16, as part of a new and final installation of “Undocumented,” an ongoing series comprised of more than 600 black hand- made ceramic vases. In spring 2017, he will complete his Chancellors Graduate Fellowship tenure, receiving his Masters in Fine Arts degree from the Sam Fox School of Art and Design.

Photos by Attilio D’Agostino. This story originally appeared in our “Express Yourself” issue.

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