Kahlil Irving Makes Art That Grapples with Race — and Life

Kahlil Irving.

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click to enlarge As part of a panel of black artists, Kahlil Irving called for St. Louis' Contemporary Art Museum to remove Kelley Walker's work. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
As part of a panel of black artists, Kahlil Irving called for St. Louis' Contemporary Art Museum to remove Kelley Walker's work.

On September 22, hundreds pour into the museum to listen to the panel. They pause by Walker's pieces, peering at the terse descriptions that offer little more than artspeak and fluff.

Walker, it should be noted, was not invited. Davis, acting on his threat of boycott, offers his moral support but declines to attend.

"The fact that this rates as being OK for curation is more than problematic," photographer Kat Reynolds says, kicking things off with an introductory statement. "I felt uncared for, as a black artist in this city."

Her words are echoed by other artists on the panel. They are hurt and conflicted about the role the museum was playing. In the past, CAM had served a critical function in the arts community and provided resources and education that benefitted black artists in the city. But the museum was standing behind Walker, even praising him. Curator Jeffrey Uslip had even called Walker "the one contemporary artist of our generation that is thinking through history, race, identity, and their lasting evolving and rotating implications."

Irving is still bristling over Uslip's comments.

"That pisses me off," Irving says when the microphone comes his way. He offers a list of black artists who more than meet the same description — and they, he says, have the courage to explain the convictions behind their art work. The same can't be said of Walker.

The work should be taken down, Irving says.

"Keeping it up says that if you support this work, you support white supremacy and a white man being able to do whatever he wants without question," he says. "And we're questioning it right now."

But Irving, for all his forcefulness, also struck a conciliatory note. After coming to this museum for years, he believes it is a bright node in the art galaxy of St. Louis.

"We don't want to alienate. We don't want to hate," he tells the audience. "We want change. Don't hate the space. Hate the decision."

The panel discussion and audience Q&A stretches on for more than two hours. That same day, three museum employees send a letter to the museum's senior administrators demanding Uslip's resignation, the removal of Walker's offensive artwork and for reforms to be implemented in the museum's curatorial process.

On September 23, Walker releases an apology through his New York City gallery, though it does little to explain the racial elements in his work. He doesn't attempt to answer the questions raised during the panel discussion. He writes that the use of black bodies was part of his mission to create thoughtful and "sometimes difficult" dialogues about social equality and civil rights.

"I have always hoped that these works, and the exhibition as a whole, would provide a forum for a conversation about the way American society gets represented in the media as images shift from context to context (newspapers, magazines, film, TV, etc.) and about how the representation of the body, particularly of the black body, is an exceedingly complex topic in American art and culture," he writes. "I hope that the St. Louis community will give my exhibition a chance to generate this conversation."

Four days after the panel, the museum's administration comes to a decision. It takes a middle ground, one which does not involve Uslip's resignation. Walker's works will remain, but a wall now partially conceals the work from visitors entering the museum. At the gallery's entrances, signs have been placed with a warning: "This gallery contains content that may be difficult for some viewers."

click to enlarge Irving argues that removing Walker's work from the museum wouldn't constitute censorship. "If you don’t believe in it, and you don’t support it, then you take it down." - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Irving argues that removing Walker's work from the museum wouldn't constitute censorship. "If you don’t believe in it, and you don’t support it, then you take it down."

The day after the panel, in a Delmar Boulevard coffee shop, Tina Turner belts out the chorus to "Private Dancer" as Irving doodles absentmindedly on a notepad.

"I'm not into controversy," he says with a sigh. For Irving and other black artists, this is a depressing and exhaustingly familiar story of a white man who got what he wanted. Walker has staked his position, and the museum has chosen to stay in bed with him.

"I still support the museum, but there are things that have to be addressed, actions that the museum has to be willing to take on," he says. "If you let people do what they want to do, and not be accountable for anything, that's a continuation of imperialism on a micro-level. That's not right."

Irving's own work attempts to puncture that imperialism with form and context. And even as an undergraduate in Kansas City or a sculptor making pots in a basement studio in Washington University, he's had to defend his work.

The next year will determine the next step in Irving's life an artist. Despite the setback, the Bruno David Gallery says the exhibition will debut sometime soon, in a new location, meaning Irving can finally complete the "Undocumented" series. He is already toying with ideas for his next big project. After putting so much effort into the installation, it feels strange to be facing a blank page again. It's been years since he created anything in the human form, and he's been musing about its relationship to race, history and urban environments. Sometimes he sits at the pottery wheel, empties his mind and just lets the ideas turn.

Irving leaves the coffee shop and walks toward the Lewis Center, an offshoot studio space belonging to Washington University.

As he walks back to his studio, Irving spots two discarded lottery tickets on the sidewalk in front of a book store. In a previous work, he collected lottery tickets and other street trash and used them as decal decorations on ceramic sculptures. He picks the lottery tickets off the ground — he doesn't have these in his collection.

There's a mantra which Irving returns to in conversation. Art is life. Life is art.

"I say that, so people recognize what they're doing," he explains. It's a way of encouraging honesty, in himself and others. It's a matter of attentiveness to history and humanity alike.

He's not sure what he'll do with the scratched-off lottery tickets. He doesn't have a plan yet. But he carefully slips them into a notebook. You never know. Life has a funny way of turning to art, and sooner rather than later.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected] 

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