Kahlil Irving Makes Art That Grapples with Race — and Life

Kahlil Irving.

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click to enlarge Irving stands between the two five-foot wooden platforms of "Before and After Sundown, Town." - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Irving stands between the two five-foot wooden platforms of "Before and After Sundown, Town."

Irving knows racism. During a semester abroad in Hungary, he was spit upon. His hair was pulled. At a bar, a man pulled out a hammer and threatened to use it if Irving didn't get the fuck out of there.

He has no illusions about St. Louis, either. The city is built on a racial history that contaminates its present, a spirit of segregation and slavery. It is a legacy that white people often dismiss as irrelevant. But a Confederate monument still watches over Forest Park. The region's municipalities squeeze poor black residents with court fees. Local police departments struggle to undo decades of abuse that can no longer be hidden behind a badge.

In a classroom near Irving's studio, two wooden platforms sit as testaments to the nature of blackness. The surfaces are raised five feet, around eye level, and support row after row of black clay vessels. Though treated with the same dark glaze, each one is different: Tall and short, angular and bulbous, the shapes evoke salt shakers and urns, decanters and shell casings.

Irving has spent the last year sculpting the pieces, about 400 in all. If you pass through the open corridor between the platforms, the overlapping curves seem to press in from your periphery, creating a kind of tunnel of black-on-black figures.

Above his blocky beige glasses, a cloud of curly hair circles Irving's shoulders. He wears shorts and a baggy denim shirt with the cuffs rolled up.

The installation before him is called "Before and After Sundown, Town," a title intended to draw on the Jim Crow-era reality of racist townships across America, those places where blacks were not welcome — on pain of arrest, beatings or worse — after daylight hours.

Each black vessel, explains Irving, represents the body of a black person. By avoiding humanlike forms, he allowed the work's monumental scale to stand on its own. The piece has layers of meaning. The rows of vessels can be seen as soldiers marching to war or congregations of black families at a park. The vessels, like black people themselves, are visible and vulnerable entities. They are black men and women passing through sundown towns. They are communities rejecting segregation amid an ocean of angry white faces. They are family, witnesses to the persistence of blackness.

"This work is to advance the position that blackness, the reality of black people, will be here in every town in which black people existed," Irving says. That reality doesn't just disappear. As with the rest of America, "No matter where you go in St. Louis, you continuously have to fight with the issue that there are people opposed to blackness existing."

"Before and After Sundown, Town" is part of a series of work called "Undocumented." The series began with just 49 black ceramic vases, a piece called "49er's (Dead Soldiers)." For each subsequent version, Irving added more pieces and updated the name. When he reached 79 black vessels, it became "ConcernedStudent1950: or The Johnson Family Reunion." For the third, Irving crossed two ten-foot-long tables, which he filled with 250 vessels and titled simply "X."

"I'm using a very formal language of shape and form," he says. "In a way I'm celebrating blackness. I'm celebrating form and shape and the vessel, the possibility of containment, and the forms that possibility can take."

The final installment of "Undocumented" was set to be unveiled at the Bruno David Gallery exhibition. Irving planned to mass some 300 vessels on one twenty-foot-long platform in the gallery. He was still trying to come up with a name for the project when, on August 31, he got a call from Bruno David himself.

The news was bad. A routine engineering inspection had turned up structural defects in the rear of the building. Overnight, a gallery that was gearing up for three months of exhibitions was kaput. Condemned.

The canceled show was a bitter disappointment. Irving had invited not only friends and family members, but gallerists, museum curators and art collectors.

He's trying to make the best of it. "Anything can happen, anything can occur at any moment," he says. "I just have to keep a clear head, keep focused on the prize, and keep making the work."

But if he thought the gallery closure meant he'd be lying low for awhile, he was wrong. Just a few weeks later, a controversy erupted at the crossroads where art meets activism, and Irving found himself in the center.

click to enlarge NYC-based artist Kelley Walker's toothpaste-splattered work sparked outrage when he couldn't, or wouldn't, explain its meaning. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
NYC-based artist Kelley Walker's toothpaste-splattered work sparked outrage when he couldn't, or wouldn't, explain its meaning.

For the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, landing the Kelley Walker retrospective must have initially seemed like quite a coup. The Georgia-born, New York-based artist is known for his multimedia work, said to comment on culture and technology — as well as its provocative use of racial and historical imagery.

Yet when Irving and other black artists saw Walker's work on the museum walls, they were taken aback. The white artist had chosen two pieces that projected what they saw as an incoherent mockery of the black body and the civil rights movement.

One piece, titled, "Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions," is an enormous screen print of a KING Magazine cover featuring the rapper and model Trina in a bikini. Walker had added splatters of toothpaste to the cover and digitally processed the result. Trina looked like the victim of a porno money shot.

On the opposite wall, "Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees)" displays three prints of the same photograph taken during the Birmingham race riots of 1963. The photo had captured a police dog lunging at a young black man during a protest. Walker had blotched and slathered the images with chocolate sauce and printed a digital version of the messy collage.

But while Walker has drawn some criticism for such images, the controversy didn't truly explode until he appeared at CAM for the artist's talk on September 17. According to accounts by Irving and others present, Walker brushed off pointed questions about the meaning behind his racially charged work.

Damon Davis, a local interdisciplinary artist who attended the talk, lit into Walker in a Facebook post the next day.

"If you are an artist and you are making work that is specifically racially and sexually charged, if you use black people for props in your work, then at least be ready to explain yourself," Davis wrote. "This is not art, he is just appropriating the images of us, throwing toothpaste on it and selling it as something original. He couldn't explain his thought process 'cause there was none."

Davis concluded by calling for a boycott of CAM until Walker's pieces were removed. The post was shared more than 500 times, and media coverage followed.

The outrage went deeper than Walker's artwork. His conduct during the artist's talk baffled Irving and others. First, Walker's work had reduced a black woman to a two-dimensional prop, and now he expected a St. Louis audience — a black audience, at that — to mull it quietly and go home? Did he really think his chocolate-covered civil rights photos would elicit respectful murmurings, and nothing more?

It didn't take long for Davis' call for boycott to gain momentum. An already-scheduled panel discussion on Walker's work was quickly expanded to include eight black St. Louis artists, including Irving.

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