Karla Black is a Scottish artist who creates abstract, immersive sculptures that explore physical experience as a way of communicating and understanding the world around us. She was born 1972 in Alexandria, Dunbartonshire and studied Sculpture at The Glasgow School of Art from 1995 to 1999. Black gained an MPhil in Art in Organisational Contexts from 1999–2000 and an MFA in 2002–4.
She is interested in ideas of play and early childhood learning as well as the primitive, creative moment when art comes into being and draws on a range of artistic traditions from expressionist painting to land art, performance and formalism. Everyday matter such as soap, cotton wool and toothpaste are explored alongside traditional art materials including plaster, pigment and paint, expanding the limits of what sculpture can be. Her work operates in an area of uncertainty, existing in a place she refers to as, ‘almost painting, almost installation, almost performance art.’ (quoted in Kraczon, p.12).
Usually made in response to the space where they will be shown, her works have ranged from delicate cellophane, paper and polythene hanging pieces suspended with ribbon or tape to large-scale floor-based environments made from plaster, chalk powder and soil. Her sculptures are often full of contradictions; they command an entire gallery space yet hover on the brink of collapse, and combine a fascination in raw, physical materials with an interest in psychoanalysis and language.
Solo exhibitions have been staged at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2013), the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (2012), and the Migros Museum, Zurich (2009), among others. Her works are held within many prestigious collections including the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, The Hammer Museum, LA, and Tate. In 2011 she represented Scotland at the 54th Venice Biennale, and she was nominated for the Turner Prize in the same year. In 2014 she was included in ‘GENERATION: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland’. Black currently lives and works in Glasgow.
Karla Black | Materials
Karla Black skillfully draws out and plays with the physical properties of wide ranging materials. They vary from household substances like soap, makeup, cotton wool and toothpaste, to traditional art supplies including plaster, powder, pigment, paper, polythene and cellophane. Although many of her materials may serve as a reminder of the intimate, daily acts that are commonly associated with women, such as applying make-up, her concern is simply with the physical merits of matter: its tactile, aesthetic appeal, rather than its cultural connotations.
One of the major influences on Black’s use of materials is Land Art from the 1960s and 1970s, including work by Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. She says, ‘The fact that the experience of making is allowed to be seen within the finished work of Land Art, its often temporary nature, its site specificity and its scale, as well as the materials themselves, are all things that stay in my mind.’ (quoted in Black, p.176).
Her relationship with materials is intuitive and she often explores their less conventional properties in experimental ways, inviting us to understand them in a new way. Conflicting surfaces from matt, shiny, wet and dry come together in a range of formed and formless shapes. She has said, ‘I want the work to be attractive, but also for the materials to remain as raw and unformed as possible.’ (quoted in Black, p.176). Plaster is left as a fine powder spread across the floor, chalk crushed into a pigment and smeared across surfaces and paint mixed with petroleum jelly or body lotion to stop it drying out.
In 2011 Black was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, installing two artworks into Gatehead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art - Doesn’t Care in Words and More of the Day, 2011. The huge, sprawling installation comprised enormous sheets of crumpled sugar paper and paint splattered cellophane, combined with pastel coloured powders made from crushed bath bombs. This sensory, all-encompassing work straddled between an overpowering strength of scale and a fragility of form, as if it was about to collapse in on itself.
The unconscious gesture is an important element of Karla Black’s practice. Although she has never described herself as a performance artist, her sculptures are full of the traces of her actions. Her forms are twisted, draped, crushed, stacked and crumpled to create sensory, visceral environments. The painterly marks she makes across surfaces from transparent cellophane and polythene to crumpled, matt sugar paper bear the tracks of her own hand, be it through splashing, staining, rubbing or rolling. The staging of her work in response to the space it is shown is a physical and demanding process, during which she creates a careful balance between raw, loose mark making and a considered sense of form. Once completed, her sculptures have an impromptu and precarious nature as if caught mid-action.
Black’s abstraction reveals numerous art historical references, including the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and feminist performance artists like Carolee Schneemann and Bobby Baker. She tempers these interests with an organised, formalist approach to aesthetic decision making, creating defined borders for her expressionism. Writer Briony Fer says, ‘It is as if strenuous actions have left something that looks entirely effortless – as if it has simply appeared in the gallery…’ (quoted in Fer).
In Black’s large sculpture Practically in Shadow, 2013, created for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, she created a multi-part work including her largest hanging polythene object to date. Thin sheets of pale pink and blue polythene were suspended from the ceiling in a series of hanging and knotted drapes, while beneath them a sea of powdered plaster and paint mixed with bath bombs was spread across the floor, with clean edges suggesting the hard boundaries of colour field painting and Minimalism. In one corner, a layered tower of compressed powder was left to gradually crumble throughout the exhibition run, leaving behind the traces of its own slow action. Story of a Sensible Length, 2014 was created for ‘GENERATION: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland’, in which similar hues of polythene sheets were hung from the ceiling, bound together with loose knots to create a fragile structure seemingly caught in mid-air.
Space plays an integral role in both the production and understanding of Karla Black’s sculptures. Her large scale, site-specific sculptures respond to the light and architecture of the spaces they are shown, with a considered sense of play. Her expansive approach allows her to explore the spaces she inhabits fully, spreading large rectangles or stacks across the floor, or working from the ceiling down with hanging shapes and forms. The range of surfaces she employs encourage new ways of looking at the spaces they are in, with transparent polythene forming thin veils to look through, suspended opaque paper forms creating holes or windows and shiny cellophane refracting the light. Similarly, her floor based sculptures that cover large areas encourage visitors to navigate the gallery space in a new way.
This expansive approach to space encourages the bleeding of one sculpture into another, as writer Briony Fer explains, ‘In Black’s work… it is sometimes hard to tell where one work ends and another begins. Yet they are separate works and it is that ‘leakage’ or spread – vertically or horizontally – that orientates us as spectators.’ (quoted in Fer). This approach can be seen in Black’s solo exhibition in the 15th century Palazzo Pisani in Venice, where she represented Scotland at the 2011 Venice Biennale. The display included Brains are Really Everything, At Fault, Walk Away from Gilded Rooms, At Base, Don’t Depend, Forgetting Isn’t Trying, 2011. These works brought together huge bundles of sugar paper chalked over with pastel shades or sprayed with fake tan and eyeshadow stained balsa wood. In another series of rooms the floors were scattered with soil, on top of which Black placed oversized cubes of soap from the toiletries company Lush, creating a fully immersive, sensory experience.
A video walkthrough of Karla Black's exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2011
Karla Black's a solo presentation at the 54th International Art Exhibition -- la Biennale di Venezia, the world's largest and most prestigious showcase for contemporary visual arts. The exhibition was curated by The Fruitmarket Gallery and is presented, as in 2009, at Palazzo Pisani (S. Marina) until 27 November 2011.
Karla Black’s artistic practice is primarily driven by an exploration into the abstract qualities of materials and form, which she prioritises over language as a way of understanding our place in the world. She says, ‘The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal and material. What comes first is colour and form, composition and scale and then, a very firm and separate second, comes language.’ (quoted in Black, p.178).
Black’s abstract approach to materials draws from the psychoanalytical approach developed by Melanie Klein, who encouraged a ‘play technique’ for children in place of language to analyse a patient’s direct experience with the physical, material world. The floor thereby became an important site for creative acts, as is often the case with young children. Black has a similar interest in horizontality, with many of her artworks covering large expanses of ground. In Principles of Admitting, 2009, for example, Black almost covers the gallery floor with a large expanse of blue plaster powder and an area of crushed brown sugar paper.
Allusions to the soft geometry and grids of artists including Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns can be found in Black’s sculptures, including Principles of Admitting. This reinforces her anti-narrative, formalist stance - she says, ‘There is no image, no metaphor.’ (Karla Black quoted in Higgins). In spite of this, Black chooses intentionally evocative or ambiguous titles for her artworks that draw on a personal form of psychoanalysis, as Black explains, ‘I just use my brain to think of the titles, no sources as such, although there must be sources in there. I think “What is this thing?” “What have you done?” “What are the conditions from which it came?”’ (Karla Black quoted in Figner and Schwabsky, p.13).
Obscure titles include Nature Equals Meaning Minus Choice, 2011, and Contact Isn’t Lost, 2008, artworks which highlight her belief that language occupies a secondary role to the work itself. The ambiguous title of her sculpture, There Can Be No Arguments, 2010 is a seemingly definitive statement that invites us to consider its relationship to the materials comprising the work – in this case baby pink plaster powder clinging to the surface of a large polythene sheet. The work has a commanding authority, despite the apparent fragility of its materials.
Karla Black, Its Proof That Counts, exhibition catalogue for Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, November 14, 2009-February 14, 2010.
Charlotte Higgins, Karla Black in conversation with Charlotte Higgins, in Karla Black at the Venice Biennale: ‘Don’t Call my Art Feminine’, The Guardian, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jun/01/karla-black-at-venice-biennale, accessed 3 November 2016.
Briony Fer, Karla Black – Brains Are Really Everything, Scotland + Venice 2011, 4 June – 27 November 2011, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
Susanne Figner and Barry Shwabsky, Karla Black in conversation with Barry Shwabsky, in Karla Black, Walther Konig, Koln, 2014.
Kate Kraczon, Black in Practically in Shadow, exhibition catalogue for Institute of Contemporary Art, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2015.