Kahlil Robert Irving: Archaeology of the Present

Kahlil Robert Irving: Archaeology of the Present

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis

March 13, 2024
Kahlil Robert Irving: Archaeology of the Present
February 23–July 29, 2024
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Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis
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The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis presents Kahlil Robert Irving: Archaeology of the Present on view through July 29.

An internationally acclaimed artist raised and based in St. Louis, Irving frequently examines issues and topics ranging from memory, race and digital media to Black life and the politics of industrial and fine art ceramic production. “Archaeology of the Present,” first presented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is a 2,500-square-foot installation that investigates our relationship to the city street, as both place and concept, through a complex layering of ceramic sculpture, found objects and video works.

“We are thrilled to present this important exhibition of Kahlil Robert Irving’s work in St. Louis,” said Meredith Malone, curator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. “Kahlil is a major force in contemporary art whose artistic practice engages dynamic material explorations that serve as powerful reflections on Black life, death, remembrance, celebration and survival.”

Irving’s ceramic works often resemble archaeological specimens, but a closer look reveals that many elements in fact document the near present, frequently memorializing moments of importance. With their enamels and lustered surfaces, they compress the history of ceramic objects—including bricks, vessels and other functional and decorative items—alongside images of protest, statements of humor and care, and objects that are often considered detritus or street debris. Soda bottles, takeout containers and tree-shaped air fresheners are rendered in facsimile ceramic, which Irving incorporates into his sculptures through a complex technique of layering and refiring. This approach approximates archaeological methodology: uncovering layer upon layer of evidence that begins to tell a fragmented story of our own historical moment and way of life.

“I’m interested in the politics of material,” Irving said. “I think about the ways ceramics are used industrially, architecturally and communally. There are many applications of this material in art. I am able to build and connect these through-lines. I think about how ceramics—as an object, a technology and a medium—has evolved. The tools of labor exploitation have evolved, too. So how does the past relate to the present, and how can we use that as a tool to make new or different experiences going forward? As an artist, I am interested in making time capsules for those connections.”

“Archaeology of the Present” situates Irving’s sculptures and other manufactured items within a large stage-like platform that can be approached via a step or an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramp. Viewers are invited to move onto the structure to explore the works.

In conjunction with his exhibition, Irving has selected seven contemporary video works that screen in the Museum’s Video Gallery as part of a series titled Space Mapping. Highlighting intimate moments and celebrating a range of artistic tools and practices, these videos emphasize the everyday lives and presence of Black people, underscoring, as Irving states, that no matter the setting, “We are still here.” Participating artists are Lyndon Barrois Jr. and Addoley Dzegede, Tony Cokes, Cameron Downey, Charles H. Lee, William M. Morris, Jefferson Pinder, and Tiffany J. Sutton. 

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Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis
March 13, 2024

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