A golden light is streaming through the windows and roof lights of the former brewery building that is Modern Art Oxford and it feels like even the air is dense and thick with powder and pigment. In one corner there's a mountain of plaster, topped with layers of pink, like the icing on a cake, that is gradually dissolving into a messy pattern of spills and footprints. Quite where the work begins or ends isn't clear.
There's a vast window-like sheet of cellophane hanging from the ceiling and wrapped within its folds are a pastel sludge of paint, toothpaste, hair gel, nail varnish and moisturising cream. This is the stuff we use every day, but recast as the stuff of art. The pale colours in the room are not just barely there, but they are also very particular. In a way they are the true primary colours, the ones that define us as boys and girls, the colours we first meet in the nursery and the cot.
It's a decade since artist Karla Black graduated in sculpture at Glasgow School of Art. Just five years since she completed her masters. This year she is involved in a run of major museum shows at the Migros Museum in Zurich, the Kunstverein Hamburg, here in Oxford (her biggest UK show to date) and next month at Edinburgh's Inverleith House. Her work has travelled far and fast, and it has done so for a simple reason: it's very good.
Black has absorbed some of the more important concerns of post-war art: the vexed questions of abstraction and beauty, the rise of performance and process art, the collapse of conventional categories of sculpture. She has re-infused them with a sense of new possibilities and a sense of the personal. She uses materials that are distinctively her own: ground chalk, plaster and cosmetic powders, thick unguents such as shop-bought moisturiser, toothpaste, Vaseline and gels.
If these speak of "feminine" concerns, then there is a deliberately gentle provocation about bringing them into the muscular world of sculpture, where sheet metal is a more familiar media than nail varnish. There's also, though, a simple sense of play – this is immediate and accessible material and it refers to the private pleasures of handling, pouring and touching.
Black has often discussed the way in which her work is only just sculpture. It's also close to painting. At the end of her main installation is a vast sugar paper construction, like a giant flour sack, dusted with blue pigment. It is fixed not with conventional studio fixative but with glittery hairspray. In an adjacent small gallery, a cellophane envelope filled with bright yellow paint and Vaseline hugs the floor, it's a way of making marks that are squeezed and manipulated, rather than applied.
The work also reminds us of the way we paint ourselves: the layers of light-reflecting pigments that form a visual deflection between women's faces and the world. The thick, juicy lotions that form a waterproof layer. These are not political points laid on thick, but they are real questions about the physical barriers between ourselves and everybody else.
While there are clear references to the body, this is not body art as such. Indeed there's an increasing sense in Black's work that she is creating some kind of landscape, like the miniature worlds that any child creates out of gravel and dust, carpet fluff or domestic scraps,
The final room in the show gives a vivid sense of time stopped, a kind of frozen landscape. There are rivers and pools of liquid across white plastic. A suspended yellow cloud of paper and pigment is suspended by a barely visible thread and seems to hover ominously, mid-explosion. The show ends with green sugar paper. It is as though this exhibition opens with a window, and closes with a wall.
Back in 2006, Black made a piece of work called Mistakes Made Away From Home. The truth is, though, that these days she is an artist who rarely makes mistakes. She has risen to the physical and emotional challenges of working on such a vast scale. It sounds like hyperbole, but she's the real deal. If her work is endlessly experimental, taking the everyday notions of both childhood play and adult role-play into the rarefied and specialist realms of abstract art, it also has a precision, a conviction, that is rarely wrong-footed. v
Until 29 November. Black's work is also on show at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 14 November until 14 February