A show of intellectual and creative force

Installation view of “AnticKS & MOdels + My theater to your eyes: Kahlil Robert Irving,” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (photo by EG Schempf)

Kahlil Robert Irving’s ‘AnticKS & MOdels + My Theater to your eyes’ at the Nerman Museum

Imagination and perspective — two intangible characteristics that Kahlil Robert Irving stretches into fresh forms in his new exhibition, “AnticKS & MOdels + My theater to your eyes: Kahlil Robert Irving,” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

Although Irving, a 2015 Kansas City Art Institute alum now living in St. Louis, is no stranger to this venue, having contributed work to the “Ephemera” exhibition in 2017, this marks his first solo institutional show in the state of Kansas. Sprawling throughout three galleries, the artist’s theater of the mind unfolds before us in a complex and intriguing way.

Those who are familiar with Irving’s previous work at the Nerman will recognize his signature style in the ceramic sculpture titled “ConstructING(MASS_withedges&Chimney) ManyMEEN’INGS+Remnants=Black.” And just as the name instructs, the piece defies easy categorization. Don’t be fooled into complacency, however, that the current exhibition is simply a reincarnation of old material. On the contrary, Irving asserts his artistic identity in a wide variety of media and motifs, and the exhibition even insinuates itself into the layout of the museum, pushing audiences to experience the work in unexpected ways.

Before even setting eyes (or in some cases, hands!) upon most of the artwork, visitors will already feel the energy of the exhibit as they ascend a gently inclined platform to gain access. The raw lumber of the unfinished ramp teases a notion that perhaps the show isn’t quite ready, with panels still being fabricated and lighting installed. The contrast between assumption and reality that emerges by the mere act of entering the gallery foreshadows a lot about Irving’s understanding of humanity and how our perceptions and emotions are intertwined.

Kahlil Robert Irving, “Flag Combine (Collected Objects)” (2020-2024), print on nylon (collection of the artist / photo by EG Schempf)

The exhibition, of course, is finished and open, but the wooden ramp yields only to an elevated boardwalk that winds its way around all the artwork. Guests are not granted free rein; they must follow the finite number of pathways that lead from room to room, and their proximity to the pieces is restricted by the routes. This constraint feels particularly acute while in the orbit of “Constellation of artworks and found objects arranged by the artist,” a painstakingly choreographed tableau containing a dizzying array of items — construction flags, antique garments, trophies, sculptures, furniture and décor.

This gathering of artifacts begs closer scrutiny and exploration, but the floorplan knows no mercy, and visitors can only prowl around the perimeter and know the material from afar.

But as the boardwalk robs us of the opportunity for an intimate viewing of any one object, it gives us a wide perspective of the gallery’s full statement, as well as its implied contradictions. Juxtaposed against more traditional-looking artistic works elsewhere in the space, such as a contemporary slab of Egyptian marble, “Constellation” amalgamates human labor, status, aesthetics, shame and innovation into an edifice that we all recognize in some way but whose nuances and secrets elude us. After circling this arrangement like a hungry predator, it will only be a matter of time before one has to consider, “In what other ways do I see everything and nothing all at once?”

By far one of the most pleasing entries in “AnticKS & MOdels” is the video installation “Yours, Mines, Ours” (photographs and assistance by Orlando Thompson), which plays on two horizontally-oriented screens positioned at a 45-degree angle from the back corner of the space.

Kahlil Robert Irving, “Yours, Mines, Ours” (2024), video installation (made with the assistance and photography by Orlando Thompson courtesy of the artist / photo by EG Schempf)

As in the previous chamber, a wooden walkway dictates from what perspectives visitors may view the montage of seashores, gentle waves, and the occasional boat that moves across the screens, but in this instance the compulsory vantage point feels far less inhibiting. In fact, the carefully positioned components do an admirable job of replicating the experience of standing on a beach.

To augment the illusion, Irving thoughtfully includes a small green box attached to a guardrail. Filled with soft, fine sand, the box beckons for human contact, and guests will find it difficult to resist the urge to sift their fingers through the soothing dust as they watch the video unfold. This familiar tactile sensation brings an element of grounding realism to the artwork.

“AnticKS & MOdels” is a show of intellectual and creative force, and it reflects the confidence of an artist whose voice continues to evolve. Residents of the Midwest who enjoy this exhibition may find it worthwhile to visit another Irving show at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, “Kahlil Robert Irving: Archaeology of the Present,” on view through July 29.

“AnticKS & MOdels + My theater to your eyes: Kahlil Robert Irving” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through July 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.3000 or nermanmuseum.org.

Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson is an educator, historian, and writer who has lived in Kansas since 2005. His research interests include Progressivism and the Socialist Party of America, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. He enjoys studying visual arts to help make the world and its history accessible and exciting to others.

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