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. Born 1972 in Alexandria, Dunbartonshire Black studied Sculpture at The Glasgow School of Art from 1995 to 1999 eventually going on to pursue an MPhil in Art in Organisational Contexts from 1999–2000 and an MFA in 2002–4. The artist recently opened a solo exhibition at The Power Plant gallery in Toronto this past October.
Karla is interested in ideas of play and early childhood learning as well as the primitive, creative moment when art comes into being. She draws on a range of artistic traditions from expressionist painting to land art, performance, installation, formalism, and sculpture. Exploring banal matter such as soap, cotton wool and toothpaste alongside traditional art materials including plaster, pigment, and paint, she expands the limits of what sculpture can be. Her work operates in an area of uncertain liminality existing in a place she refers to as, ‘almost painting, almost installation, almost performance art.’
Usually made in response to 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 for raw, physical materials with an interest in psychoanalysis and language.
Karla Black’s installation at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto is full of these apparent contradictions. The site-specific exhibition is a testament to the artist’s steadfast fascination with formalism and raw material, privileging the act of creation and the raw visceral experience of engagement in materiality. Strings of coloured paper hang haphazardly from the ceiling resembling wilting leaves, powdered paint is strewn about the floor and over abstract paper sculpture enveloping the space in murky greens and pastel hues of pink, and streaks of handprints and vaseline cover walls and hanging windows in relics of gesture.
The space itself becomes a manifestation of gesture; a sculpture on the brink of collapse at one defying genrification and reasoning and instead, speaking in a subconscious way toward the viscerality of the three-dimensional human experience. The spectator is at once beckoned by the piece in its playful entropy and yet resolutely aware of their social role in the gallery setting, calling attention to the tension between desire and identity in contemporary society.
The site specificity of Black’s Power Plant show eschews the traditional gallery setting in that the spectator feels at one with the piece, existing inside of it whilst simultaneously acknowledging their distance from interacting with it. Black subsumes the entirety of the room commanding the walls, the ceiling, the floor, and empty space. Walking through the exhibition one cannot help but feel that inside the space, they too are an integral component of the installation.
Black’s work can be seen as manifesting what contemporary artistic scholarship conceptualizes as the post-postmodern or the ‘meta-modern.’ Seth Abramson of the Huffington Post writes of post-modernism “distance is what makes postmodernism go. For instance, in the distance between irony and sincerity, and the push and pull between the two is born a thousand dissertations on postmodernism…[distance is what] postmodernism thrives on, and therefore entrenches, our feeling of being alienated from one another, and alienated from our communities, and alienated even from those aspects of our culture (and the human experience generally) that are shared.” Similarly, Black’s work has a distance embedded within it. This distance, however, is borne out of a liminality which in its very nature is binding and productive.
Her works engage in what Karla refers to as pure abstraction. By suspending associations, symbolic or metaphorical, the physical and optical experience of the sculptures themselves are placed at the fore. Somewhat like a landscape, the phenomenological impact of the work as both sculpture and site is the primary mode through which to encounter Black’s delicate and monumental works. In other words, Black’s work is both site and spectacle, her work cannot exist without the context of the gallery or spacepecific.”
Traces of the process of making such as fingerprints and dust are left upon the surface of her work and in this sense, Black’s works are wrought in the form of becoming or unraveling, as though “suspending gesture in space,” or interrogating materiality on a molecular scale. Black is interested in the concept of art before art. The deconstruction of the homogenized materials of sculpture, divided into their autonomous parts, left suspended in the act of creation itself, her process is resolutely deconstructionist. Just as our world is perpetually in a state of flux, of creation and perception, so too is Karla Black’s work.
To be sure, embedded within Black’s work is much of the “distance” associated with the post-modern. This distance is invoked by the visceral experience of the raw material, and the urge to touch, and yet is it is at once distinctly modern as well. Her work recalls Freudian and Dadaist connotations, recalling the ready-mades of Duchamp and the analysis of the various human “drives.” In this sense then, Black’s work oscillates between the modern and the post-modern. The post-modern, alienating distance embedded in her work is bridged by a unifying emphasis on the shared collective of human experience. Each viewer experiences the piece separately, but collectively. This collectivity is engendered by a corporeality grounded in animal instinct, in the drives, a trait of humans which is binding rather than alienating. In the space at her Power Plant exhibition, one feels hyper-aware of those others in the room, knowingly experiencing the space in relation to them.
In this sense, Black’s work oscillates between the post-modern and the modern, being that which is grounded in the distance between the material and the finished product, and the distance between touch and perception but grounded in the shared experience of the human drives. The urge to touch, the anxiety provoked by the raw material in its essence, the compulsion to unify, consolidate and concretize the work so as to enter it into the market as a transferable “object.” At once Black’s objects are liminal, existing as not-quite sculpture, not-quite as painting and not-quite as installation, but rendering this liminality as space of resistance and meaning-making rather than alienation and isolation. In the push and pull between these polarities, Black’s vacillation engenders a sort of Metamodern perspective.
Cody is a content creator at Glossi Mag.
He is a photography aficionado, masters candidate, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.