Kahlil Robert Irving


“Ever since, I have had dreams to make and present my thoughts and push what we know about life forward through objects and experiences”

AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art? When did it become serious?

KRI: I am from the United States and live in Saint Louis, Missouri mostly. I travel a lot and spend a bit of time every year in New York City. I have been making things since I was 12 years old. Attending an extra-curricular program in high school or secondary school really influenced my decision to attend art school. It was during my third year of school that I really started to believe myself as an artist. I was studying abroad in Hungary for seven months and it was really organized like an artist residency. I was so independent. So it was a supportive experience that allowed me to gain experience of what it really looks like to be a practicing artist. Ever since, I have had dreams to make and present my thoughts and push what we know about life forward through objects and experiences.


AT: Are there any people who have been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?

KRI: To be honest, my grandmother, my dad’s mom has been quite significant. She shared with me work ethic, patience that I have never seen from anyone in my life. Growing up with her was life saving and it has taken me my whole like so far to see the sacrifices, lessons, and investments she made for me to be able to experience a whole life and be able to make my own happiness within myself. She gave me everything that she could share and I am forever indebted to this woman, Ernestine Irving is her name. I studied art history in my undergraduate studies along with studio art and that part of my education shared with me the tools to research and engage with rigor and sharp critical focus. Reed Anderson and Anne Boyer where faculty members whose lectures I constantly return to because the intensified information they shared is still so important to the work I am doing today.


AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?

KRI: My first approach to my work is an idea or question balanced with excitement of living in the moment. Maybe not the moment we are in currently but life in the 21st century. It really is a balance between a desire of trying new processes and practices that challenge colonialist structures that reinforce hierarchies and racism. How can I survive, how can I support others, especially Black people to also be able to survive despite the predicament we are all living in.

Many Grounds (Many Myths, symbols / NEW PORTS) Malcom / Waffles [ mixed vessel ], Glazed and unglazed ceramic, personally constructed decals, lusters, 2019, 32 7/8 x 43 9/16 x 10 1⁄2 inches | photo Jackie Furtado | courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts (NY).

AT: What are your favorite tools and materials for working?

KRI: Lately, I have been evolving with the materials I am using. I have been making a lot of work in the computer lately. Digital collages, light boxes, prints on fabric, and digitally printed rugs. A new set of rugs will be installed and exhibited at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati sometime this year. With the Corona virus everything is changing constantly. So working in the digital realm allows me to make a lot of things and hold on to them. One day I will be able to share them all or print them for myself and look at them in my studio.
I love making ceramic objects and prints as well. Traditional mediums like ceramic and printmaking are so engaged and involved. The layers of possibilities in process are really exciting to me. The materials and processes have meaning as well. So I really work to engage all the layers within the possibilities with what I am working with at any given time.


AT: What do you feel while you work?

KRI: Usually I am in a clear space mentally and work as much as I can before my body gets tired. I listen to music and really relax into whatever I am working on at any given time. Sometimes I am working with assistants in the studio. With them, I talk a lot or we are making jokes to get through whatever we are doing at any given time.


AT: Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?

KRI: In terms of the process of construction and figuring out the details it is a balance. I usually write notes, make drawings, think through how the work will exist and from then on it is problem solving all the way until the work is complete. I have an idea of what I would like to work to look like, always but I know that there are many ways to get there. So I am always leaving room for intuition and spontaneity. For me to know when a work is complete is totally dependent on a few variables, how long do I have to work on it, what are all the aspects that I desire to be in the work and have I put them in there, and lastly does it fit the goal and or vision of what I want to say or show to the public. All of this comes from working to figure out where I would like to be apart of the art historical conversation and making space for myself in the world.

Kahlil Robert Irving: Black ICE | Installation view, Callicoon Fine Arts, New York, 2019 | photo Phoebe D’Heurle | courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts (NY).

AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?

KRI: There are a few very influential artists that I think about their work and questions often. I am thinking of who would I like to be in conversation with today and from the past. I use this as a guide to continue to measure and see what it looks like to take risks or make new moves within my own practice.


AT: How important is the role of social media for you?

KRI: Social media has a huge presence in my work, as it is a source for material and content.  There are so many layers to contemporary life and social media is a filter that we see and get information. I have used social media and the digital space in several ways in my work in terms of making decals for sculptures and using imagery and text to mark forms. I have made collages that are turned into wallpaper. Right now I am working on a piece with a friend Richard Munaba that involves social media and digital technology and accessibility during this experience of shelter in place for the whole world.


AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?

KRI: The most challenging thing I find about pursuing art is that it has changed at every level that I have climbed and some details get more complex and some get easier. So I think the challenge also depends on what you want and need from it and what art wants from you and what are you willing to take on. So it is hard for me to define the daunting realities one may face because it is different for all of us. There are similarities within experiences that we all will face but for Black and Brown people the circumstances are different. So I try to find a reward in different parts of the experience to not let the whole thing be discouraging. I find friends and community is important so that you know what you are working or fighting for on any given day.

White matter, white text [State of Missouri, {Jason Stockley}, pgs 1 – 30], 2019, Glazed commercial ceramic tile with personally constructed decals, 10 x 55 x 1/4 inches (25.1 x 35.6 x 1 cm) | photo Phoebe D’Heurle | courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts (NY).

AT: What do you do besides art?

To be honest, I do not do much outside of making my work. I watch a lot of TV and read. I turned my studio into a small business and there is always work to be done and things to be figured out, taxes, bank account information, or managing bills. I also recently bought a building for my studio and there is always something to do in it in terms of updates or repairs. So I am a busy person. I stay busy but recently I have been trying to catch my breath and relax. Cooking has always been a passion of mine and I try to take risks in the kitchen to make enjoyable food to eat alone or sometimes with friends. In the future I plan to go to different beaches. It is hard being an artist and for me it is not so close to being something that I do that is fun. I take it pretty serious because at one point in the past it was what got me through school and now it is my livelihood.


AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?

KRI: I expect honesty from the people that I work with. My goals… I have achieved quite a few of my goals and right now I am working on figuring out new ones. I hope to have a family one-day but that is another story. I know the world is going to change forever because of the sickness we are facing around the world and the fact that there are people in charge in the governments who are not doing to best by the people who they are supposed to represent, but I hope when there is some calm in the current situation I want to travel. I want to go to China, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Jamaica, and a few other places.

Street and STRIPES – (Crosswalk = Cross FIT/Coors) “Real Road Relief ”{Blood, Tar, Grass}, Collograph with found objects, 2019, 94 5/8 x 42 3/8 x 1/4 inches (240.3 x 107.6 x .6 cm), Printed at Bedrock Art Editions, Kansas City, MO | photo Phoebe D’Heurle | courtesy of the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts (NY).
Kahlil Robert Irving (b. 1992) is an American visual artist currently living and working in the USA.

He attended the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art, Washington University in Saint Louis (MFA Fellow, 2017) and the Kansas City Art Institute (BFA, Art History and Ceramics, 2015). In 2018 The Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University mounted Irving's first institutional exhibition entitled Street Matter – Decay & Forever / Golden Age. Since then his work has been exhibited at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary, Kansas; the Arizona State University Art Museum, Phoenix; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.