Yet Unfulfilled at Reese Gallery
Established in 2014, the Reese Gallery is a relatively new addition to the arts district of Cherokee Street in St. Louis, located just off of Antique Row at 3410 Wisconsin Avenue. Currently on view is Yet Unfulfilled, a two-person exhibition featuring Kahlil Irving’s ceramic sculptures and Erica Popp’s photographs. Irving’s encrusted sculptures are made of compressed layers of forms and textures, often sliced to expose their transections and interspersed with vernacular forms such as slip cast recreations of detritus. The resulting effect is a luscious, corporeal materiality that is both engrossing and abject. In contrast, Popp’s photographs of rural Midwestern landscapes are taken during the bleakest seasons of the year and portray a feeling of vulnerability through their absence of activity and crops.
Irving’s ceramic conglomerations rest upon pedestals throughout the small gallery space. These sculptures are made of thick slabs and paper-like, fragile sheets combined with other forms such as coils and casts of disposable food containers; everything is fabricated entirely out of clay. Their surfaces are treated with painterly abandon and glazed with bold colors and patterns. Compiled Mass #1 is constructed with blunt directness, while its surface is coated in clashing colors—both stylistic tendencies of German Expressionism. Irving’s sculpture is visceral, chunky and looks heavy. Layer upon layer are stacked on top of each other. A slab juts out aggressively beside a food box; both are covered in decals of scratched out lottery tickets. Compiled Mass #1 is coated in thick, gloppy glazes—mostly black except for occasional smatterings and drips of vibrant green, red, yellow, and gold, as well as decorative patterning.
Irving’s use of commonplace and unglamorous materials also shares similarities with the Arte Povera movement—a group of Italian artists who emerged in the late 1960s and experimented with non-traditional materials like soil, rags, and twigs as a way to challenge the values of the commercialized contemporary gallery system. However, unlike the Arte Povera artists, who were linked to contemporary political radicalism and social issues, Irving appears to be less engaged with any specific political agendas. Instead his practice seems to be process-driven and informed by his experiments with materials and methods, while throwaway objects extend from his everyday experiences into his studio works.
Together with Irving’s sculptures, Erica Popp’s photographs of rural Midwestern landscapes line the walls of the front room. Popp’s photographs are comfortably scaled at 12” x 18”—a size that is appropriate both for the quietness of her subject matter as well as the intimate gallery they are currently housed in. Photographed in fall and winter months, her landscapes all share a muted, earth-colored palette with subtle tonal variations. Popp vigorously and repeatedly photographs Illinois and Indiana landscapes, imbuing them with an intellectually rigorous approach. They show expansive, desolate landscapes filled with dried grass, cut stalks, and upturned soil. No crops or people are present. If it were not for houses and farms in the distant horizons, these scenes would seem to be completely uninhabited. Popp’s photographs could be compared to Dutch artist Carla Klein, who paints spaces that are typically active (airplane runways and highways) as abandoned landscapes. Klein’s landscapes are unchanging; their somber conditions are set. The bleakness in Popp’s photographs, however, is temporary and offers the promise of change in the coming spring and summer seasons. Popp’s Tire Tracks, Rural Indiana portrays a field absent of human presence. The soil’s surface is imprinted with indexical tire tracks that are covered with a light veil of snow, not enough to cover the tracks completely, just enough to emphasize the tread of the tires. Being frozen, these marks have a feeling of permanence, but it is a conditional permanence—one that will thaw and change in the coming months. In this way, Popp’s series indicates the meaning behind the exhibition’s title, Yet Unfulfilled, borrowed from a speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave entitled “The American Dream”. Speaking to an audience at Drew University in 1964, he stated that America was “a dream yet unfulfilled” and had not truly experienced our deep interdependence due to poverty, violence, and racial discrimination. The potential for change that Popp suggests in her photographs could be aligned with this aspiration of amendment.
From the front room and into the back, the exhibition informally continues. This room is divided by a long wooden table; one side features an antique stove and kitchen sink, the other an expansion of the exhibit, though more casually curated. Small sculptures by Irving are mindfully placed on an aged wooden, green bookshelf. A few are casts of food boxes, which are embedded in his larger sculptures, but here they stand alone as independent objects. Popp’s framed photograph, Tree Between Fields, leans on the mantle of a fireplace now filled in with bricks. This photograph shows two fields side by side, each a different tone and value, with a single tree dividing them in the center of the picture plane.
Irving and Popp choose materials or subjects that are often overlooked, and their works are consequently instilled with a sense of melancholy. Both re-contextualize the mundane—Irving by incorporating throwaway objects, Popp by presenting barren fields. Through reconsideration, both artists take what was once despondent and impart the potential of change.