Our penchant for immediate gratification is part of what makes two of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art’s recent acquisitions so tantalizing and bedeviling. Kahlil Robert Irving, the artist behind the two-ceramic works, Compact Mass – News; Nation Holds Breath for Death (Pride and Protest) – NO CHARGES FOR WILSON and Kaleidescopic Lucas, Gilded Fossil, makes no qualms about the complexity of the material. “The work takes a slow read,” he said.
And therein lies the challenge, as viewers are left to discern meaning from what at first appears to be loosely choreographed chaos. The pieces, highly detailed sculptures that disguise themselves as assemblages of detritus, almost seethe under their own density. Part of Irving’s Street View series, Compact Mass… betrays few clues to its viewers aside from a collection of newspaper headlines that have been reproduced as decals and embossed onto the sculpture’s surface. Each fragment of text deals with media coverage of the killing of Michael Brown, an African American teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent refusal of a grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot him to death.
In our quest for a message, these details invite easy conclusions. Racism is bad. State-sanctioned violence against African Americans is evil and unjust. Black lives matter. And these morals would feel satisfactory to most viewers of the piece. It’s a simple recipe: Spend a few minutes pensively studying the artwork and walk away with a somber, albeit intellectually and emotionally digestible, lesson about the need for greater social justice and reform in our society.
But Compact Mass… offers its audience a subtext, overwhelming and damning in its gravity. For while the newspaper facsimiles serve as documentary ambassadors of a specific tragedy, the sculpture’s abstract components actually give resonance to its voice. The various clays and finishes Irving employs all conjure visions of streets, pavement and sidewalks — the urban landscape that functions as a macabre set piece for an unending cavalcade of violence against Black America. For those willing to look, segregation, oppression and a racially motivated caste system are as ubiquitous and ingrained into our nation’s fabric as the concrete building blocks of modernity that populate the artwork.
The piece is an anguished dirge, pleading with us to achieve a deeper understanding of the centuries of exploitation and violence that built our civilization. As Irving put it, the work represents humanity’s perennial dilemma of “having so much access to things, but not being able to see what’s right in front of us.” Even the raw components of the sculpture embody the Anglo-American penchant for cultural domination and appropriation. Bits of ceramic porcelain are reminiscent of the Meissen factory in Germany, which rose to prominence in the 18th century as a premier manufacturer of impersonated Chinese porcelain, complete with stereotyped East Asian motifs and illustrations.
While Compact Mass… is a memorial to the slaying of Michael Brown, the sculpture also strives to remind us that his death was but one in a continuously unfolding global system that harms and marginalizes Black people.
Kaleidescopic Lucas, Gilded Fossil, which was exhibited as part of the Ephemera show at the Nerman Museum in 2017, is another complex manifestation of time and environment. Inspired by the artist’s visit to Lucas, Kansas, in 2015, the sculpture’s most prominent feature is the sepia-hued ceramic image transfers of the guidebook the town publishes for its guests.
Irving described his time in Lucas with a mixture of awe, fondness and whimsy, offering particular praise for the work of Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, the Civil War veteran and artist who created the iconic Garden of Eden sculpture park on his property in Lucas. According to Irving, Dinsmoor “was a character [whose] beliefs and actions created a kind of relationship between him and the community.” This legacy is something that informs Irving’s own autobiography and gives a unique and important sense of place to the town.
Despite the rich layers of community and expression that Irving discovered in Lucas, he lamented that like most small towns, it remains “overlooked, because we’re only worried about consumption.” A revulsion and disavowal of capitalist-inspired mass consumption imbues much of Irving’s work, and it clearly informs the way in which his sculpture memorializes the town of Lucas. Beneath each layer there is history and meaning and human dignity. We simply need to look closely enough to see it.
–Matt Thompson, assistant registrar, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art