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Kahlil Robert Irving Roves Across Millenniums at MoMA

It would be a mistake to refer to the St. Louis-based artist Kahlil Robert Irving as a mere ceramist. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Irving’s current solo exhibition in the continuing “Projects” series at the Museum of Modern Art, where his trademark tabletop sculptures are almost overshadowed by his busy, even chaotic, installation environment of wallpapered collages. They draw from what the artist describes as “an everlasting feedback loop of my experience,” especially online.

Images, as if projected from Irving’s browser history, stretch across the length of the gallery walls, and on one wall, rise two stories high. This recreates for the viewer a distilled experience — seemingly adapted from Irving’s own — of being young, intellectually voracious, and Black online — post Mike Brown and George Floyd.

In his fluency with the contemporary digital life and one of the most ancient forms of art, Irving enacts a sort of code-switching across millenniums, going from memes to fired earth and back with apparent ease. He presents a vision in clay of life as a present-day Pompeii buried under an explosion of too much information.

If Irving’s sculptures resemble archaeological specimens pulled from ash and pumice and situated in deep geological time, a closer look reveals that these works document the near-present. With their glimmering patinas of glaze and luster, they compress and mash up the history of clay-based art — bricks, vessels and other functional and decorative objects like teapots and vases — alongside urban street debris, including soda bottles, takeout containers, rolled up newspaper, and the tiny tree-shaped air-fresheners that hang from the rearview mirrors of taxis, all in facsimile ceramic.

They also incorporate approximations of architectural forms in miniature ranging from cylindrical brick smokestacks to a chromed arch mimicking St. Louis’s famed Gateway Arch, a monument to westward expansion designed by Eero Saarinen. Newspaper headlines and Irving’s own self-portrait in the form of a social-media avatar can be glimpsed and partly read amid the congealed forms of his tabletop sculptures that are displayed on plinths under vitrines. A floor-mounted tiled work reproduces the asphalt street itself, while also, through flecks of white throughout, evoking the starry night sky.

On my most recent visit to Irving’s MoMA exhibition, I spent an hour in the ground-level gallery, accessible to the public without an admission ticket. The exhibition is presented in partnership with the Studio Museum in Harlem and curated by its director, Thelma Golden, along with Legacy Russell, its former associate curator (and now executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen). Watching visitors enter was not unlike seeing a crowd waiting anywhere, with most people staring at their phones, but here the phone and its scroll becomes a collective curated experience, with days or months’ worth of content reproduced on the walls. The visitors laughed at memes (one convincingly argues there should be more statues dedicated to Outkast than the Confederacy, because the Atlanta hip-hop duo lasted longer and won more Grammys), recognized clickbait ads (“Top Heart Surgeon: It’s Like a Magic Eraser for Fatigue”), and noted a playlist worth of references to songs and videos through screenshots (including a post by the artist Glenn Ligon of a video interview of James Baldwin). Scannable QR codes are incorporated throughout.

Drifting through are nods to art history and popular culture, to the many facets of Black joy as well as the spectacle of Black death, to the organization of protest and the undulating flows of news reporting alongside flotsam and jetsam of streaming, posting, shopping and reading.

At the time of his MoMA debut, Irving’s work was prominently displayed at two other New York museums, including the Whitney Museum in “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019” and at the New Museum’s 2021 Triennial, “Soft Water, Hard Stone.” His work was also featured recently in the Gagosian Gallery’s “Social Works II,” the sequel presentation in London to last year’s blockbuster New York counterpart, both curated by Antwaun Sargent, and brought Irving’s work in a cross-Atlantic dialogue with an older generation of artists including David Adjaye, Theaster Gates and Carrie Mae Weems.

With the exception of Simone Leigh, there isn’t another artist making more relevant and compelling clay-based work at the moment. As a multimedia artist Irving adeptly wrangles with the too-muchness of contemporary experience — of injustice, violence, inequality and insatiable capitalism — creating new constellations for representing a library’s worth of information that might otherwise go unrecorded. Clay-based works remain at the center of his practice, though the sculptures are much more difficult to read: They gesture across a vast swath of history — the clay tablets of Mesopotamia through Ming dynasty porcelain to the preponderance of brick in St. Louis architecture.

In the MoMA installation, the backgrounds and wall-mounted images of stars and skies suggest at once the immensity of the natural world beyond and, conversely, that the windows we look through are increasingly mediated and digital ones.

It would be a mistake, however, to link Irving’s work with Afrofuturism. Rather than looking to an idealized future, his work records the present and contextualizes it with the past. Standing in the gallery wondering how Irving’s sculpture sat in relation to the digital galaxies that surrounded them, I thought of the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” and his famous reading of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus.” Benjamin sees Klee’s angel as hurled by the wind of “the storm we call progress” into the future as the angel looks backward to history and the wreckage of the past piles at his feet.

In Klee’s monoprint we are given an image of the angel, but I’ve always wondered what the piles of catastrophe might look like. Irving’s sculptures might provide a vision of this, bringing together detritus of quotidian living, product packaging and glimpses of headlines, compiled and compressed into clay much like a photographed image is compressed into a jpeg file.

Projects: Kahlil Robert Irving

Through May 1 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400; moma.org.

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