Q&A: Kiah Celeste and Material Agency

June 27th, 2020  |  Published in June 2020

The study of aesthetic materialism–visually studying raw material for its own ability to be ‘beautiful’–has often had some problematic connotations for me. The ability to strictly utilize specific materials because of their aesthetic power sometimes feels like a superpower: a skill in rationalizing pulling yourself out of the trauma of human history in order to make something that was just beautiful could at times feel half hazard and lacking in radical sympathy.

Two Valentines (2020) (front) and Gall Blass (2020). Installation at Quappi Projects. Louisville, Kentucky. Image courtesy of author.

Kiah Celeste, Brooklyn native and Louisville-based multi-dimensional artist, who has materialized ideas regarding such extensive topics as the lottery business in low income communities, the neglect of Black women in America, obsession of self in the media, and corruption in the medical device industry is now working in a reductivist manner that is intended to utilize the qualities that make a specific material work in its own sculptural favor. Her most recent work transforms industrial and painterly forms into abstraction using unconventional recycled materials, variable color and a reliance on flexibility and experimentation to make three-dimensional aesthetic works that rely on the materials’ design in order to function.[1]

Currently Celeste has four pieces in a three-person exhibition at Quappi Projects titled A Sort of River of Passing Events including work from her, Dominic Guarnaschelli, J. Cletus Wilcox and curated by gallerist John Brooks. But this discussion isn’t necessarily one about the exhibition–but rather one about agency and to whom and how that’s distributed. Celeste and I began discussing her industrial-Arte-Povera approach to material, formalist vision . . . and conclude with a discussion around the elimination of Black agency in the formation and defense of the United States throughout its history.

MB: I wanted to speak to two of the floor works that you have installed at Quappi, Gall Blass (2020) and Two Valentines (2020) to get us started.

KC: Those two are a part of a series that I started last year, in October. It came out of a lack of resources, space, money, and an interest in using those limitations to my advantage. During a residency last year I was buying a lot of material and equipment and I just spent a ton of money but didn’t use all of the materials. Some of it was also toxic or wasteful and I just hated how I felt after [using it].

. . . Those two [artworks] have similar qualities: texture and overall shape. They’re very circular, round. I’m interested in pastel colors [which both works contain] and things that are aesthetic, abstract, and don’t possess a specific meaning. I find that there is a relationship between objects with rounded edges that is attractive because they have a relationship to things that are circular—both the infinite and organic.

Gall Blass (2020). glass, acrylic and interior house paint croquet balls, marble. 90 x 80 x 18cm. Louisville, Kentucky. Image courtesy of artists’ website.

This [series] focuses on everything that might be thrown away or has been thrown away or discarded. I’m focused on recycling materials in order to speak to sustainability but also because I enjoy the treasure hunt, I love using the resources that are put upon me.

MB: That’s an interesting phrasing of words. .  .

KC: Is it?

MB: Well, yes. Choosing to use those words rather than evoking the idea of finding, or putting yourself in a position of acquirement evokes the idea of power of choice. . . If you’re implying that they are put upon you, you imply that there is a lack of agency there.

KC: Yea . . . that is how I approach the whole process in a way. I go out and look for things, but I also just feel that if they are meant to find me then they do. If not, that’s ok. If I have a bad day looking for something and I don’t get what I’m looking for . . . that’s the way it’s meant to be.

MB: Do you go out looking for specific materials, colors, textures, shapes . . . a specific aesthetic quality?

KC: Sometimes. There are some things that I am just drawn to such as circular things and things that have a lot of maneuverability, as well as specific materials. I’m really interested in rubber and metals. Things that contrast with each other. Really hard things and really soft things. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a specific piece and I’ll try to find that thing . . . which is a hard way to go about it. So if it happens to present itself then it’s really amazing. If it doesn’t then I usually just go in the direction of what is being presented and I consider how I can change my idea to corroborate with what I find.

MB: There’s also a lot of precariousness to those two pieces. . .

KC: Oh, yea. . .

MB: There’s a sense of precarious balance, which I find really powerful. I found myself within the gallery for what felt like several minutes in a squatted position attempting to find out if there were any adhesives being used on Gall Blass or if it was just the power of physics. . . I don’t necessarily want to know the answer. . . But I enjoyed the magic.

KC: Well, can I tell you the answer. . .

MB: Yea. .

KC: That’s part of the whole series that I am doing, I Find This Stable, I’m focusing on everything as interdependent, balancing together. My hand is only there to put it together, but I’m not adding anything and nothing is being adhered.

MB: So you’re grouping them in such a way that they are reliant on each other

KC: Yea, I think that is part of the beauty in it. Their success is codependent on one another–in order to be stable.

MB: What about the fact that they are synthetic materials? . . .

KC: I’ve been thinking about that since you posed that original question in your email. I thought, you know, why am I attracted to these super synthetic materials? I think there are maybe more reasons than I haven’t thought of, but I don’t like using organic materials because they’re already beautiful on their own and I don’t need to do anything to add to that beauty

MB: The work has already been done. . .

KC: Yea, nature has already done its job and I don’t need to alter it. There’s a beauty in these industrial or functional materials and, rather than negating their function, I’d rather expose their function aesthetically . . . but I also am just really attracted to plastics and metals, synthetics. I’m not sure exactly why yet, though.

MB: In essence it feels as if your work in this exhibition is aestheticizing items discarded from capitalistic enterprise, can you define where you find or attain the objects’ aesthetic prowess before combining it with other materials?

KC: I don’t like to think of them as capitalist materials, although they are used within capitalist enterprise . . . it’s hard to ignore [concepts] that are facts though. They are used in enterprise. But the reason I like those materials is their relationship to engineering. Engineering is an art form that makes things as smooth and functional as possible. I think that goes into exactly what I’m doing. They have their natural purpose within their shape and composition and I like to use that or expose its function through imagery. I don’t make them to be social activist works.

MB: So it isn’t a point of critique for you, just a coincidence?

KC: Yea, I guess so. I can’t negate it. It’s there. But that isn’t the message. I guess one might associate me with glorifying these materials through art but in reality those machines that are making these objects are really beautiful. Though they can be used in kind of a disgusting way.

MB: I guess you could argue that you’re negating the human error, or destruction / violence, in how some of these materials can be used.

KC: Machines aren’t capitalist. People are.

MB: The material itself is innocent. . .

KC: Yea, it’s neutral. . .

MB: So, if that’s the case, if the material is neutral . . . then what sort of addition to this materialistic innocence are you attributing by manipulating them in the way that you are?

KC: I’m manipulating them in a way that lets them do what they are already capable of doing. I don’t want to force them to do anything that they don’t want to do. I realize that I think of them personally, their form is their body. I’ve kind of personified them, and I definitely think they have autonomy in a way because of their design. Balls roll. Corrugated pipe expands and contracts and is very bouncy like a slinky. So I want to use those qualities to my and its advantage. In a way that it wants to cooperate, but also in a way that I get to help it with what it wants to do. Then other objects are added to it or vice versa.

MB: That’s a lovely thought though, to think of yourself as a facilitator for materials with which to give it agency to do what it does best. Affording this inanimate object an autonomy and a power even to cultivate its own experience . . . that’s a really generous, lovely act.

KC: Beautifully put. I mean, I’m in control obviously, because they are inanimate objects, but I don’t want to put too much of my control into it. . .

It’s interesting, Noah, my partner, was reading about Taoism and he was explaining it to me, and it felt so similar to how I’m approaching my work right now. Everything is a part of this flow . . . just to let go of things outside of your control and if something happens then that is just how it’s supposed to be.

MB: Your interest in materiality feels in conversation with minimalism and for me feels familiar to Robert Irwins’ or David Hammons’ affect toward material and meaning. Would you agree and where do you enjoy substantiating meaning in your material usage?

KC: To answer your first question: I enjoy David Hammons’ work, but his work is heavily conceptual and although I do consider my work ambiguously conceptual, my materials do not hold the same kind of direct symbolism that Hammons’ work does. Irwin’s work is super minimalist. I do recognize that my work is minimalist; although I did not make that connection initially, or it didn’t reveal itself until the series started flourishing. But now I see that it is. That’s ok with me, but I would not label myself a minimalist. Minimalism is just letting things be their purest self and that is what I am doing. That’s what Irwin does.

MB: Who are you looking at then, or who do you have an affinity for?

KC: There are so many. . . I really like Vera Cox, she’s an artist out of Berlin. She uses a lot of random, odd materials and color in this really beautiful way that I’m really drawn to . . . but they’re much more fabricated than my work. I have been heavily inspired by architecture and design recently, like Ettore Sottsass who was a pioneering Italian architect and designer. I love the way he turned functional and livable objects into these vivacious sculptures. I find common ground with Lee Ufan, who uses a lot of rock and metal and balances them in ways that physics allows. . . Certain artists use physics to their advantage. The influence that photographer Arielle Bob Willis has on me speaks to the relation my work does have to the body. She photographs people wearing colorful clothes that transform them into abstract living sculptures. Katie Bell, a friend and amazing artist, catapulted me into making tangible work. Before I met her I was focusing on photography.

What was the second part of that question?. . .

MB: Where do you find joy in substantiating meaning?

KC: The whole process is fun. I really enjoy locating materials and the obstacles that I have to go through. At times it can be really frustrating, but when it happens it’s so rewarding. Then making [the work] is the process of learning and playing with materials. I get to discover what they can and want to do and how they react to other materials. Experimenting is the best part.

MB: Do you want to speak further into that struggle? A specific example, maybe?

KC: Well, I have my methods and they’ve become more well-rounded. I used to just drive around aimlessly. Well. . . I still do that occasionally . . . but now I have specific dumpsters that I go to regularly in the back of different factories and shops. I’ve recently began going directly to fabricators and asking them if they have unusable material or broken, perhaps flawed, materials that they are going to get rid of anyway. They’ll usually either cut me a deal or give it to me for free. That’s been a really good way of looking for specific things, when the object I’m looking for isn’t just something you’ll find on the street. Facebook marketplace is pretty good sometimes. I’ll pay for things, the money isn’t really why I’m opposed to buying supplies, although it helps to not have to! I just don’t want to use anything new or have something made for me to add to the entropy of the world. So I’m taking things out of entropy and then they can re-enter it later.

MB: Are you sticking to Louisville or do you travel out of town to acquire materials?

KC: I usually do it around here, but I’ll drive pretty far sometimes. I like to explore whatever area I am in for that moment. Since I currently am Louisville based, I want to wear it out. For example, I’ve been looking for a very specific concrete pipe and I found a plant in Louisville and I went and asked them if they had any broken or mismade ones. This employee of the plant told me they don’t but if I want to go to their sister factory where they actually fabricate, in Lexington, I could talk to them. So I go to Lexington. They were closed, but then I found out about another one and they were super cool. So I’ll be going [in a couple of days] to pick up whatever I find for free. I’ll go anywhere as long as I can transport it.

MB: As we speak you’re fulfilling a residency at Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort, Kentucky. Is this concrete piece a part of something that you are working on there?

KC: Yea, it’s another piece that is a part of I Find This Stable. It’s all about the balance of interdependent materials and their relationship between their materiality, color, and their flexibility. I’ve never been able to work with such a limitless scale before. So that’s really exciting.

MB: So then what is the residency looking like for you? Do you have any expectations for yourself? What are you considering with this ‘limitless scale?’ What are your plans?. . . Obviously I’m not sure how much you want to reveal.

KC: Well I’m not ready to discuss my sculpture yet, I just finally figured out what I’m going to do yesterday. I had the materials in mind but I wasn’t yet sure as to how I was going to arrange them. The challenge in this residency is going to be in the restriction from playing with the pipe due to the weight. I will probably have to place it once and that is where it will be. I’m just drawing it out a million times.

MB: Have you been told how big the pipe is going to be or do you have any expectations as to how large they are?

KC: I went to the plant and they have so much that is going to be destroyed. So as long as we can transport it, I can have it. I have access to a flatbed trailer that can carry a maximum of eight tons, and there are pipes that are four feet in diameter with five inch thick walls with various depths or lengths. I want it to be on the larger side.

MB: From what I understand of your work—most of the content, or where it’s derived from is poetically and broadly referential to the body without containing or addressing bodies directly—whether that be a discussion around Black bodiness, gendered bodies, or bodies in relation to ecology. First, do you agree, and if you do, do you care to expand on it.

KC: I think it’s interesting and perhaps subconsciously true that the work is in relation to the body and relationships between more than one body. I don’t think that has anything to do with race because race is a construct and in a sense [this body of work] doesn’t have to do with that construct. It’s hard for me to say something doesn’t have anything to do with race because just about 100 percent of the time it does. This work has a raw human element of movement, but it doesn’t include societal pressures and I think since it’s coming from a place where there is no oppression . . . you know, inside my own head. . . I would like to think that I don’t oppress myself. . .it isn’t coming from a racial place.

Valentines (2020). exercise ball, polyester flexible duct, interior house paint, glass spray paint. Louisville, Kentucky. 100x90x70cm. Image courtesy of artists’ website.

I feel like that the work would also be genderless . . . because I do have work that’s regarding gender fluidity like that other work that is on the wall [at Quappi]. I like the idea of removing that specific human quality from the work and just having that ambiguous element of humanity in it.

MB: You have remained pretty active within the protests over Breonna Taylor’s death  that have now been running continuously for about three and a half weeks here in Louisville (since May 28th, 2020). How are you feeling? Have you been able to take any steps back to contemplate what this huge moment in history means for you, individually? And if not, how do you feel about that?

KC: Well I have. When the ‘boom’ of these protests and “riots” began I was like, in there. I was trying to do everything. Go to every single protest and be a part of all of the art builds and I was really stressed out and overwhelmed. Driven, but also depressed, because I felt that as much as we are doing, this nation is against us. I mean, this is something I always think about. It’s not the beginning. It’s just that other people are hopping on board now and so now I’m like, Oh . . . we have momentum so I have to take advantage of this time. I’ve had to quickly figure out how to navigate this without compromising my mental stability. I started to think about how I can use my energy toward this in the most effective way, which of course, ended up being through art. That wasn’t obvious to me at first. Doing these art builds was really helpful for my mental health and also effective for the community. I’m still going to protests . . . but you know, especially Black people . . . if we aren’t mentally healthy then we’re already losing. I felt a little weird at first with my work opening at Quappi right when the protests began. This work in particular isn’t racially charged. I just felt awkward about it. But it occurred to me that I am a Black woman in an art space, and that is saying something in and of itself. Art doesn’t always have to be about identity. I don’t want to be considered a Black woman artist, even though I’m proud to be a Black woman. We need to be visible in every space. So I’m feeling better in that sense.

I still feel pretty hopeless, a lot of the time, because the [policing] system is founded in racism. It’s not a broken system. There needs to be a complete overhaul. It’s a lifetime of work . . . and I think people are getting tired. Which is ridiculous because Black people have been tired. Been tired our whole lives and before. . . And. . .

There is a spectrum of allyship. Some are asking, “How long is this going to last?” And, you know, you better get used to it because we have our work cut out for us. I’m just afraid that they’re going to get tired and give up because it doesn’t affect their lives. White people can ignore it. Though it is a system that their ancestors built and so it’s their responsibility to fix it. I don’t think it should be on Black people to fix the system that fucked us over. But here we are.

But there are some good things happening, I guess . . . it’s just about damn time . . . even if it is happening slowly. . . The good news isn’t even good news because none of this should have happened in the first place. We shouldn’t have to be talking about this in that way. The story should be, “Yep. They charged them. They convicted them . . . months ago.” People have been dying since she was killed! It hasn’t stopped. It’s just fucking overwhelming.

MB: I’m sorry. . .

KC: I mean . . . [pause for silence]

Was that the last question . . . [laughs with trepidation]

MB: Well, I wanted to ask about your Slave Veteran Merchandise (2020) that you announced on your Instagram a couple of days ago.  Was that designed in conjunction with Josephine Sculpture Park?

KC: It’s kind of all a happy coincidence. I thought of the idea back in February and then for some reason I finally put it into effect the week before the uprising started. . . Of which I was like, “Wow. Great . . . timing?” [laughs]. It all kind of happened at the same time. I then started my residency this last week and Melanie VanHouten (the Founding Director) informed me that they were asking Black artists affiliated with the park if they were interested in contributing something for Juneteenth. I thought about making something new but I was like, “Wait. . . I have these t-shirts. And they’re really appropriate for Juneteenth.” So I decided I would contribute that for them and they promoted them for me. Additionally, half of the proceeds from each shirt sold goes to a different racial justice organization every week.

Kiah Celeste wearing a t-shirt from the Slave Veteran Merchandise (2020) series. Image provided by artist.

MB: I really enjoyed the play with this truck-stop Americana iconography and I wanted to hear your opinion on those and using that as a visual referent. . .

KC: I got the idea when I was driving from Louisville to Cincinnati. I stopped at a gas station and, you know, you see some guy with like, “America! Home of the Free and the Brave. . .” or whatever it is. And he has these bumper stickers and eagles . . . and I considered how veterans get a lot of exclusive treatment. They board planes first. They receive discounts for things. I’m thinking, they don’t do any of that for Black people who involuntarily built this country from the ground up. We’re veteran as fuck! I’m just playing around with this message that we are still undertaking this burden and receiving nothing but oppression for it. People ignore that [slavery] even happened. People want to forget . . . but they don’t want to forget 9/11. Not that you should. But you can’t pick and choose. Veterans are held in such high regard. They’re considered heroes. But Black people have suffered for the expansion of this country since its founding. We’ve fought in wars for a nation that didn’t fight for us. So I thought it was just kind of obvious. Enslaved in the USA, and not the land of the free . . . for many of us.

–Megan Bickel

[1] Artists Website. kiahceleste.com. Accessed June 23rd, 2020.

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