Something Beautiful Awaits You: A Conversation with Kahlil Robert Irving | Magazine
TG: These hidden codes and landmarks act as a sort of overlay. What, if any, is the distinction for you between meme, quote, footnote, echo, simulation and imitation when engaging collage as a working practice, but also as a practice of being? A lot of what you’re demonstrating now is thinking about collage as a way of being.
I think of echo as a remnant of something else. My sculptural works do many of these things at the same time. The difference between a meme, a quote, and a footnote is that they all have a different architecture. In ceramic sculptures, there is a time when a footnote and a quotation exist at the same time in several ways. The white ceramic decorative objects of some sculptures have floral motifs on the outside. I’ve used the factory printed material on the side of these so you know what and where these things are from, but you also get the reference to historical decorative information or ornamental imagery that they appropriate.
TG: Can you describe your relationship as an artist to modernism?
When I think of modernism, I always think of when someone tries to describe modern in relation to a capital M, modernity and modernism as a philosophical movement in art, architecture, design and culture. I could be described as an accomplice, but someone could also say that I am a lover and an aficionado, that I exist in both spaces.
LR: I want to address the relationship between artist and artisan, craft and folk, as you struggle with this idea of high art and low art. These complicated guns come with great volatility. Part of what your job does is push, in different directions, these categories. The way you think about what quotes are, the way you point to different parts of the story, is built into that repression.
Much of this starts with communities. The pottery studio became a place where I could get excited about something, or something could be revealed to me that I had no idea existed. At 12, 13, 14 or 15, the oven was the best technology I had ever seen. I never could have imagined that you could open an oven and something beautiful would be waiting for you. It also allowed me a kind of freedom. Then, going to college, all those titles, frames of gaze, and constructs of ideological and political stratification defined what I was doing as limiting. As a result, my community, my grandmother and my great-grandmother taught me to continue to find my way.
I always think of the history of craftsmanship and the political and institutional implications and constructions of what it is, but also of the cultural and social spaces in which craftsmanship exists. In some spaces, you don’t need to mention crafting at all. I mention it now because I’m here, and I don’t hear anyone else mention it. If I have an exhibit at MoMA again, I won’t have to say. Now it’s registered. I wanted to affirm that these things could be related to each other on the record so that I could help remove the baggage that plagues many other artists. Let them know someone is communicating with and through their frustration. To make room for the likes of Nellie Mae Rowe, James Sanford Thomas, and our Missouri resident Jesse Howard, to be able to sit down at the table and be welcome. Because I come from a place of difference. That’s what let me know that it’s good for me to be here. They also deserve the room.
LR: Right now where we’re divided in attention across a lot of different platforms, where even sitting and having this conversation with you here with multiple windows open on my laptop, there’s the possibility of being pulled of “the room” or of the presence of which you spoke earlier.
A big part of exposition is speed – how fast you move around the room and the layering of things on top of each other, read as speed. Layering things is also about swiping screens and turning pages. In the exhibition, these motions are collapsed, these pages can no longer be turned. The motion of moving across the screen or walking through something on the computer has been rendered motionless. It feels like a long exposure, as if the ceramic encapsulates these movements simultaneously and flattens them in an instant.
TG: It’s so resonant to me, Kahlil. Engaging in your work gave me a sense of the screen’s unique generational sensibility. Your work presents a visual vocabulary to this, and an experiential corollary, which I find profound. To be able to imagine this artistic representation of a condition that, in many ways, we are still coming to terms with. Heaven and earth are both present in the exhibition. What does it mean to you to ask people to look up and down, as well as reverse those experiences by shifting the position of what is supposed to be in each place? How do you want this project to be lived in the body, through the mind, through the look and the sight?
The orientation of the sky and the ground entered the work as a means of trying to create a constructed and imaginary world. This installation is metaphysical and spiritual because of this inversion that you refer to. It makes the ground feel close to the plane we’re walking on, almost like we’re in the skies. 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 job. Everything doesn’t make sense. I take risks by allowing the image of the sky to be so large and close to us, or the asphalt to look like the starscape relative to it. I’m always unpacking what I want someone to take away. I still struggle with that.