Karla Black has said that her sculptures begin with a desire to do something, to see how a certain material might behave. The desire moves swiftly towards sculpture: can this material stand up by itself? What if it hangs or hovers? How far will it spread if left to its own devices?
Much is made of the materials Black uses to make her work. Cosmetics, over-the-counter medicines, cleaning products and packaging as well as the paint, paper and plaster more usually found in fine art. But the artist refuses any association (especially any gendered association – the inclusion of cosmetics does not make her work “feminine” any more than her liking of pink does). More interesting, perhaps, is that the materials testify to her reliance on her own reserves and resources: they are stuff she is familiar with, can easily get hold of and knows how to use. Why should she waste time trying to mix powder paint to a particular shade and shimmer when she knows of an eyeshadow that is already exactly right and that will, moreover, do what she wants it to do in the context of sculpture?
And more important is the state in which her materials are in when we first see them – more or less the same state they are in when she does. Black tries to keep her materials as raw as possible, using for example powder paint and plaster powder mixed together but not with water, not dry or set. This helps them retain their energy, and keeps the process of their making close to the experience of their viewing. Of relevance here is the way Black likes to make an exhibition: left alone in the space with her materials, working with them until they – magically, it seems – become sculpture. A great deal of her work is made in and for a particular exhibition space, although once made and shown, it does continue to have a life – her sculptures may look like a temporary coming together of matter that might at any time fly apart again, but once made they can be reinstalled, remade and refreshed. Her predilection for powdery, chalky materials that do not change much in the process of making a sculpture ensures literal freshness as the material gestures of a work’s making are repeated in its reinstallation.
Having assembled her materials into sculpture, Karla Black steps away, leaving it to its own devices. She began her career making performance art, and part of the trajectory of her practice has involved figuring out how to remove herself from her work so that it can exist without her. Inevitably precarious because of the narrow gap between the process of their making and their continuous existence as art, her sculptures nevertheless have to hold their own without her, cannot rely on her to prop them up. The only person in the work once it is exhibited is the person looking at it, not the person making it – the viewer, not the artist. And the viewer has quite an active role – we need to hold these materials, this art, in our minds, moving among and around it carefully as we work out what, conceptually, to do with it, how to think about it.
Finished but still messy, contingent, precarious, seemingly unstable, balanced in the present tense of continuous gesture, Black’s art challenges the very premise of the art gallery or museum, which even in its most contemporary incarnation might be characterised as the preservation and presentation of past things. Dead things perhaps, or at least (in Black’s words) “transferable, hermetically sealed objects like the sculpture on a plinth or the painting in a frame” – things which exist in stark contrast to her work’s drive towards energy and action. Her way of working poses a challenge to the art institution, and it is this challenge that holds the key to the Fruitmarket’s invitation to Black to make the inaugural exhibition in our newly refurbished and extended gallery, opening with her work after nearly two years of closure.
The exhibition has in its turn had challenges thrown at it, its scope and timescale shaped and reshaped not only by the inevitable slips and trips of any major capital project but also by the Covid-19 pandemic. Black’s work for it has, characteristically, retained its integrity while flexing to meet each shift. The exhibition has been planned in parallel with our developing understanding of the Fruitmarket’s changing building, in three sections. The first, in the downstairs Exhibition Galleries, presents a typology of Black’s work since its earliest beginnings. A selection of existing works that do what her sculptures do, in the materials they do them in. Standing, hanging, draping and spreading volumes and planes; in chalks, powders, pastes and gels on paper, polystyrene, cellophane and polythene. The second section spreads an expansive powder piece all over the floor of the newly refurbished upstairs gallery, in a work that revels in the still-familiar light and space. Together, the two parts might be understood as some kind of retrospective, a reconvening of existing work in the context of what the artist is making now, an insistence on the present in the past.
The third – or the first, depending which way round you go – is a new work made in and for the Fruitmarket’s new Warehouse Gallery, a double-height, steel-framed, brick and wood former fruit and vegetable warehouse whose material resonance is at the heart of the reimagining of the organisation. Our hopes for the Warehouse are that it will be a space in which artists can experiment, opening up the process of art making for themselves and for visitors. We want it to drive creativity, to start and maintain an open, generous, inclusive conversation about what art can be and who it can be for. Working with Black first is a crucial figuration of this. We have spent the best part of eight years planning, hoping, fundraising, designing, and building the closest thing to perfection in an art space that we can imagine. Now our vision for the future of the organisation needs that space to be disrupted by an artist who can be trusted to do something unimaginable with it. Disrupted by art such as Karla Black’s – messy, demanding, often materially overwhelming art that is never going to give you what as a curator or viewer you think you want, but can give you more than that: something you had no idea you could have.
Black knew what she wanted to do in the Warehouse the moment we started talking about it. And right now, we don’t know exactly what sculptures will result from that, although we know some of the materials that she will be working with. Inevitably, the work she makes will be shaped by the space and time of its making, and by her as the person making it.
As Karla has said: “I force these raw, unstable materials and forms into institutions and the market to purposefully make them accept the difficult, messy business of what art really is. I then 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?’ Often, when I look, I’ll come across concerns inside myself about freedom, independence, wilfulness, desire for change…”
When we finally open the exhibition, Karla will have done whatever she has done. And she will have forced a moment of raw creativity into the Fruitmarket for us all.
Karla Black: Sculptures (2001–2021) details for a retrospective is at the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh from 7 July until 24 October, https://www.fruitmarket.co.uk/ Fiona Bradley is the director of the Fruitmarket
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