Artist Kahlil Robert Irving Sees the Collapse of American Industry in Clay

His works in ceramic recall histories of colonialism and manufacturing, while alluding to our digital age

Meeting Kahlil Robert Irving on the occasion of ‘Black ICE’, his second solo show at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York, I asked if he knew of a quiet place where we could talk. He took me to the main exhibition space, which was dominated by two floor works: both consisted of grids of black, hand-pressed ceramic tiles speckled with white and resembling asphalt; the larger of the two also seemed littered with objects (broken bricks, take-out containers, newspapers, a soda bottle). Stopping before a trapdoor in the gallery floor that I hadn’t noticed earlier, the artist opened the latch and we descended underground to talk about his work and career to date.

‘Kahlil Robert Irving: Black ICE’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York; photograph: Phoebe D’Heurle

Irving splits his time between New York and St. Louis, where he grew up, completed his MFA at Washington University in 2017, and recently found a 420 m2 warehouse space he is hoping to buy and convert into his new studio. Less than a week after his opening at Callicoon, however, the artist would be heading to Chicago to participate in the 2019 New Art Dealers Alliance Fair, before travelling on to the Singapore Biennale in November. As we sat in the gallery basement, he gestured to 23 crates in the corner that held the six works he was to show in Singapore, bringing up images of the finished sculptures on his laptop. He pointed out that the rectangular-tile bases of the gameboard-sized pieces featured photographs of various types of ground – pavements, gravel composites, grassy areas – that Irving had collaged then fired in layers on the glaze of the tiles. The flat rectangular base of the sculptures he was showing me on his laptop, as well as those seen in the gallery upstairs, made me wonder if he was thinking about painting in relation to his sculpture. But Irving insisted he was not ‘trying to be in conversation with painting’; rather, his concern was ‘the literal ground’.

‘I’m not interested in the business of making images. And I don’t want people to place themselves in or on my sculpture,’ the artist clarified. ‘I’m interested in dealing with the perception of space […] an experiential engagement of the physical and of the body.’ Irving primarily makes sculpture, though ‘Black ICE’ also includes a selection of wall works – ranging from collaged text and images fired on paper-sized commercial tiles to a photograph of clouds and blue sky printed on vinyl and affixed to the top of a column near the ceiling. The installation creates an immersive and pleasingly disorienting effect with relatively few constituents: the asphalt-like floor pieces below, the bit of sky above (a sly element that is easy to miss), as well as the wall-mounted series of four text-on-tile works. Beyond the recurrence of flat rectangular elements, I was prompted to think about the works’ association to painting because the expansive floor pieces, while resembling asphalt, also evoked starscapes, calling to mind Vija Celmins’s 1990s ‘Night Sky’ series and complicating the interplay with the vinyl-printed blue sky above: ground and sky; night and day.

Kahlil Robert Irving, [ STREET & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and FREEDOM ] Black ICE ] (detail), 2019, glazed and unglazed stoneware and white clay, grog, cement, found vintage decals, personally constructed decals (screenshots, patterns, scanned objects, memes), luster and gilded pyrometric cones, 2.8 × 4.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, NY; photograph Lydia McCarthy

The larger of the two floor works, [ STREET & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and FREEDOM ] Black ICE ] (2019), measures just over four metres wide. Irving’s principal medium is fired clay: the Styrofoam take-out containers, newspapers and soda bottles that seem to litter the asphalt-like surface are all ceramic facsimiles. (The only found materials used by the artist are a few bits of brick.) The results are so convincing that it is easy to be duped. Irving acknowledges a self-conscious move away from the ‘artifactual’ quality of the table-top sculptures that he showed at his solo debut two years ago, ‘Streets:Chains:Cocktails’, which often resembled, referenced or contained deconstructed or destroyed vessels. By contrast, [ STREET & Stars …] plays radically with scale – not only by toggling between ground and (outer) space, but also by containing numerous sites of near-microscopic detail. Beside a trompe l’oeil take-out container there is a blue and white vase, shattered into a mosaic of fragments. Its source, a Ming Dynasty vase, was photographed (with spout and handle removed), the resulting image printed on plastic, then collaged onto ceramic and fired in the kiln. Here, Irving juxtaposes the ancient and the contemporary in both content and process.

Kahlil Robert Irving, White matter, white text [State of Missouri,{Jason Stockley}, pgs 1,2, 4, 6, 12, 13, 14, 16], 2019, personally constructed decal on industrial ceramic tile, 25.1 × 35.6 × 1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York; photograph: Jackie Furtado

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ceramic copies of discarded newspapers in [ STREET & Stars …]. Irving’s first solo show, ‘Streets:Chains:Cocktails’, also featured newspapers – containing stories about the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent protests – which were scanned, printed and fired directly onto the ceramic. Here, however, what look convincingly like newspapers are actually screenshots of news or advertisements taken from social media. In rendering the digital simultaneously memorialized yet fragile, Irving prompts us to reflect on the nature of time itself, from the digital contemporary, to the receding age of print, and reaching back toward antiquity when writing was recorded on clay cuneiform tablets.

Irving has been making things out of clay since he was twelve. And his work has been critically engaged with the history of ceramics since 2013, when he spent seven months in a residency at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary. ‘Clay can be a pot, it can be made to represent something as trompe l’oeil, or it can be mushy clay.’ He tries to activate all of these aspects of the medium at once in his work. ‘I’m interested in the history of ceramics, in part, [because of] colonialism and commerce and white supremacy.’

Kahlil Robert Irving, [ STREET & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and FREEDOM ] Black ICE ] (detail), 2019, glazed and unglazed stoneware and white clay, grog, cement, found vintage decals, personally constructed decals (screenshots, patterns, scanned objects, memes), luster and gilded pyrometric cones, 2.8 × 4.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, NY; photograph Lydia McCarthy

In conversation, Irving traces various threads and chapters in the history of the medium, from the European adoption of Chinese and Japanese methods to the commercial production and subsequent industrial decline in America. Take, for example, the series of four tile wall works that have as their source legal documents relating to the St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley’s acquittal for the 2011 murder of Anthony Lamar Smith. While the tile works approximate the size of a legal sheet of paper, the glossy surface also suggests a screen, the layers of collaged texts – fired in successive layers in the kiln by Irving – give the effect of scrolling through a PDF of legal documents on screen. To make the work he chose American Olean Tile, previously manufactured by a unionized factory in western New York, but now made largely in Mexico. ‘It’s this complication of white consumerism and commerce, and the destruction of US-based industrial production’, Irving told me, that prompted him to choose these particular tiles. But these tiles, which bear the traces of a collapsed American industry, then become a sort of screen upon which a history of white supremacy and police violence plays out, providing an x-ray of the ailing democratic body of contemporary America.

Kahlil Robert Irving: Black ICE’ continues at Callicoon Fine Arts, New York, USA, through 20 October 2019.

Main image: Kahlil Robert Irving, [ STREET & Stars | (Memories < > Matter) fair and FREEDOM ] Black ICE ] (detail), 2019, glazed and unglazed stoneware and white clay, grog, cement, found vintage decals, personally constructed decals (screenshots, patterns, scanned objects, memes), luster and gilded pyrometric cones, 2.8 × 4.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts, NY; photograph Lydia McCarthy

John Vincler is a writer based in New York, USA.

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