Sculptor Kahlil Irving has been making art for more than 10 years and his reputation as a critical thinker and talented sculptor continues to grow. But all too often, he says, people primarily think of him and other black artists in St. Louis in terms of their race. And Irving’s sick of it.
“I’m American and Americans come in all different shapes, sizes and colors,” he said. “Yeah, I’m black too. For me, the work is inextricably about my experience. So if it’s my experience — and I happen to be a black person — that doesn’t necessarily have to keep being brought up.”
To center attention on their work, Irving and six other artists will exhibit their work in “Almost Now, Just Then…” which opens tonight at Projects+Gallery in the Central West End. The show is an anomaly in the commercial gallery world of St. Louis, where — except for a few prominent faces — most exhibiting artists are white. In contrast, every artist in the show is black. But one thing is clear: they don’t want to be seen only as a group of black artists making work about race.
“A contemporary artist is a contemporary artist,” said Kevin McCoy, one half of art duo Work/Play. “But for some reason we have to add what we are when it refers to black artists. And so we’re trying to eliminate those lines and say ‘Yes we are black contemporary artists but we want to be looked at as contemporary artists.”
The exhibit features a variety of work intended to stand on its merits and in relation to the work of other artists in the room. In Katherine Simone Reynolds's video “Optical Doubles, on the Binary” two teenage boys who look like twins roller-skate, fall, and are helped up by older more advanced skaters. Addoley Djegede’s work presents images of her ancestors printed on batique’d cloth. Irving’s framed detritus portrays how humans affect the environment. Jen Everett’s installation of layered portraits and aged radio equipment examines how people archive their personal histories. Work/Play’s images examine a history of political protest by professional athletes.
The exhibit aims to disrupt a common perception in the arts — that works by artists of color are solely reflections on their race.
The artists first exhibited together this past year as part of a show titled “Encoded” at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. The show was written up in leading arts publications and took more direct aim at representations of race in visual arts. For “Almost Now,” the artists wanted to draw attention to the skill, craft and concept behind their work.
“I felt that there was a void particularly in commercial spaces of black artists making work in which the content is a bit more expansive or could be accessed from more than one or multiple vantage points outside the concept of race,” said multimedia artist Lyndon Barrois, Jr.
Each artist will present small installations — clusters of individual artworks such as photos and sculptures. They will connect to the work of other artists in the show, drawing out themes of personal history, pop culture and environmental impact. Jen Everett will present images and electronics as part of her installation. Like the other artists, she hopes viewers are able to view the work from multiple vantage points and in terms of nuance.
“What I hope they come away with, or they at least experience is this idea of visual complexity, not a flattened version of black subject or subjectivity,” Everett said.
If you go:
What: “Almost Now, Just Then…”
When: June 8-July 29.
Where: Projects+Gallery 4733 McPherson Avenue, St. Louis
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