Interview: Scottish Artist Karla Black on Materials, Meaning, and Messy Moments

In October, the Glasgow-based artist Karla Black installed two works in the Dallas Museum of Art – one in the front Hoffman Gallery, another covering one of the DMA’s floor-to-ceiling windows – as part of the latest Concentrations exhibition. Black, a finalist for the Turner Prize in 2011, uses a variety of found, domestic, and “art supply” materials to create sculptural forms that tease the boundary between object and installation. At the DMA, one work consists of large pieces of cellophane, knotted together and marked sporadically with paint, covering a large window. At the bottom of the translucent thatch work, unknotted swaths of cellophane gesture towards the floor. Another piece consists of a rectangle of pinkish powdery substance covering the gallery floor and surrounded by strips of tape attached to ceiling and floor, marked with the fingerprints of the artist. In the center of this delicate cage-like structure, there is a large crumble of cellophane, a fragile, translucent starburst.

Karla Black, ‘Necessity,’ 2012, cellophane, sellotape, paint, body moisturisers and cosmetics, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London and Galerie Gisele Captain, Cologne

These are delicate, visceral pieces, objects that challenge our expectations or definitions of sculpture, while grounding our experience of both the art and the space in their particular materiality, their tangible presence. We spoke to Black about her work, her process, and began by asking the artist — who in the past constructed her sculptures entirely in the space where they were to be installed — how she goes about discerning and harnessing the variety of materials she uses for a given project.

FrontRow: You create pieces in specific sites using a range of materials — traditional art supplies, but also things like beauty products, powders, Vaseline. So when you come into the space, how do you go about thinking about what materials you are going to use in a given piece?

Karla Black: I have a gamut of materials that are mine that I’ve always been working with. I like really sort of raw materials. I really like things like gels and oils and pastes and powders, but also really papery things. So, for me cellophane is paper, not plastic, you know; it’s made of trees, like papyrus, and it has that real papery crinkling. And I do use polyurethane with chalk dust on it for other things. I always prioritize material experience over language as a way to move through the world or learn about it and understand it. So I’ve always just stuck with what’s there, the raw stuff. I use a lot of dirt as well, just the earth and things like that. That’s the experimental, studio sort of private side of my practice. When I know what a space is going to be like, I think about what’s going to work best in that space and I have a lot of things to choose from.

FR: So how complete is the piece before you enter the space to begin working on it?

KB: I do have an idea in my head about what sort of work to achieve the kind of thing I’m trying to make and what I’m trying to do. Then I just bring that stuff. And I’d always limit it to that stuff when I’m here so it couldn’t be too open-ended, because you only have a few days or a week.

FR: Is there anxiety associated with that, to working on something within the restraints of a set period of time?

KB: Yeah. I mean definitely, but it sort of drives it. I think because I’m trying to make sure it is alive, so it has the energy. But there is a crisis point in every sort of install. I came in [after the pre-install at the DMA] and it was all really successful. And they were all saying, “Oh that looks amazing,” and I was just like, “My god, it is not anything to me yet.” So it was at that point I had a real – I don’t know if it is anxiety – but it feels like a crisis point. But then I think from there comes the creativity. You have to do it. There’s no choice. And it usually transforms itself into frantic physical activity to get it. And sometimes it doesn’t take much. But you know before you come it will succeed. I suppose you just have to trust. I do do it all the time. You just have to make it work. And it might not be good, but then you just have to take it down and start again.

FR: I guess it gets back to that old question, “How do you know when a painting is finished?”

KB: Yeah, and it is just the same. What happens in the studio, it is just like painting a painting. But I’m doing that here, which gives a bit of added pressure. I don’t really enjoy the public nature or the pressure. I would rather be in a studio doing it, but sometimes it is just not really possible or you would lose something just to make myself safe. And what’s the point? It would probably be really boring.

FR: So in this second piece, there is cellphone and tape, but also a powdery substance on the floor. What is that?

KB: It is traditional sculpture making materials. I use a lot of traditional sculpture-making materials and drawing materials – I try to use them really raw. Because the thing about plaster and a lot of these materials is that they are supposed to be transformed –you are supposed to create a chemical reaction and it becomes a solid, permanent stuff. But I try to retard where it retains its rawness so it retains its potential, in a certain way, its life. To try have that sort of visceral response. You know that that is not solid and that you can touch and you can move it around, and I feel like that sort of openness does something to your body and it does something to your brain. It is a physical response to the thing that works because of the context of what it is – it is an artwork. So that it is not a purely optical experience. That is kind of the difference, traditionally, between sculpture and painting. A lot of the time [my work] can sit in between. It is almost performance or installation art as well, but it pulls itself back to try to be a sculptural object.

Traditionally a painting is sort of a window onto another world, and therefore it is an escape, but it is a kind of optical, cerebral escape. And I think the thing about sculpture is that it is completely the opposite thing. It is in the world, it absorbs you into the materials and into yourself in the physical world. And I think that that can be as much of a leap or as much of an escape or an experience. And maybe it is more real, because this is a real thing.

FR: You mentioned some of these are traditional materials that you are using in a different manner, and some of them are beauty products and other things, and while they do produce a visceral response, they also carry associations to sculpture or social dynamics. How important are those associations, or is just about using what is available and what can produce the aesthetic response?

KB: I suppose for me it is connected. I create it out of pure desire. I like the color and stuff and you can get a certain quality out of [cosmetics] that you can’t get out of powder pigments because it is definite, soft and velvety, and paper takes it differently. I think the difference is that in my work it doesn’t point outside of itself to metaphor or symbolism or meanings through language. Everything that it is, is sort of contained within itself as a reality. It is a real thing; it is really here. And so I think in terms of that, just thinking about what those things are. Everything is quite practical.

But then if you think of things, makeup and plaster and paint and things like that are very similarly used for improving a surface. So they are not different. In the textures and the materials they are, but what they are for isn’t that different either. I used to use a lot of those DIY materials, but then also things used for ailments, like Vaseline and Alka-Seltzer. I think there is a whole thing about improvement. I don’t think that this is what the work means. I think the whole thing doesn’t so much have a meaning than it has a consequence. But when you think about art and literature and music and science, they are sort of improvers for the inside, for the human mind, for learning. And then you have these materials that are sort of improvers for the outside. It is what you use to present a civilized surface to the world, because that’s necessary, acceptable. It the same thing with art.

FR: What do you mean when you say your work has “consequence,” more than “meaning?”

When I say my work doesn’t have meaning it has consequence, I mean I am putting out this difficult, chaotic, messy, problematic moment that art is – that creativity really is. It is not some nice sealed off hermetic transferable thing. There is lots of difficulty and chaos in it. They are things that people don’t really want; it is sort of messy. These sculptures manage to kind of push that into the institutional framework of the museum — and of the market. Because the market is really important to me too – to get that rawness, to get the raw creativity into it. But in order to do that, it has to have this civilized surface. That is the difference between self-indulgence — what is going to make you happy — and the fact that there are other people in the world. But just that sort of animal behavior of just mucking about with stuff is really the thing. I wouldn’t just do something that is just a gesture because that’s really self-indulgent and it doesn’t have any real consequence. So it is trying to work up its civilized surface in order to feel acceptable. But not really through meaning. They are what they are. Hopefully you can still see the fact that somebody struggled with them, that you can still see the sort of human, the animal creativity in the thing, because there are the marks. But I think lots of it is very, very pretty, but it is doing that on purpose, in order for its rawness to be acceptable.

FR: The question of the market it is interesting, because there is a fragility to the work and a difficulty in terms of preservation and the ephemerality of the work.

KB: There are whole different categories of it. It sort of moves from these standing sculptures and ones that are made of paper. Some of it just goes in a crate. And there are really big contracts and rules surrounding it.

FR: I read that you require collectors to send a picture of the work once a year.

KB: Yeah, there are all these rules, like no vitrines, no pushing them against the wall.

FR: Have these considerations changed how you think about the permanence — or lack thereof — of your work?

KB: To me I think that is interesting. I take everything that is outside the work as well as sort of the conditions that make it. I’m not just making something in the studio, and then that is what it is and you put it in an exhibition. Because I’m always trying to tackle the sculptural problem all the time. So new problematic elements within that are interesting to me. But it is difficult. There are lots of things along the way where you’re like, oh I should have done that, or I should have sold that. Because I have all these contracts at home that belong to me, I can always go back and fix it. Everyone has to sign that it all comes back to me and the gallery. I’ve got all these safeguards.

But I think about the difference between making a sculpture for an art fair or an artist-run space. Because my work is really open, those conditions or that context comes right in. I do see certain things as a compromise, but if you have this raw creativity even having to make something in the first place is a compromise from the point of view of just enjoying yourself. Just mucking about and stuff, like a little hobby, that’s the best thing — not making anything, just working with stuff. So making something, that’s already a compromise, and the further you go along, it is just part of that. I do think that my work is a compromise and a protest at the same time. I’m kicking against it all of the time, trying to go back. I just want to do this thing and I keep trying to keep the creativity of that. But I like the negotiation as well because it makes it actually be a thing in the world. And it takes it from the place of self-indulgence.

FR: All of this touches upon the fact that you have insisted in the past that these are all autonomous works, that they are sculptures, and not installations or performance or something else. Are they sculptures?

KB: Yeah, I call them sculptures. That’s really important to me.

FR: Well, especially because it always seems like they are really treading on the edge. It’s always teasing its ability to be autonomous. Why is that essential to call them sculptures?

KB: Exactly for that reason. I think it is not an installation because it has edges and it is trying to be autonomous. There are lots of things in the work about independence and standing alone. I studied sculpture at art school and I really intentionally didn’t learn traditional techniques, like how to put up a shelf or build a plinth. I’d rather sort of find my own way to do things because it is more interesting or surprising for the work. I suppose sculpture as a discipline is sort of the thing for me. I really enjoy the sort of discipline of the subject that has its limits. But the interesting thing about sculpture is that it is out of the discipline of sculpture that all of the real interesting developments of contemporary art come in the 1960s into the 70s. It’s sculpture that really smashed itself apart into installation art, performance art, sound art, because those things are about space. So there are all of those interesting developments and all of the freedom in that. But at the same time, I have a real connection with modernist aesthetics especially in abstract painting. What was missing in post modernism through all the freedom and all the experimentation is that you lose sight of all the aesthetics of it. I’m trying to get that back.

I find that there is no way into modernism, but just because of that, you can’t just say painting and sculpture as sort of individual things aren’t finished. Especially because so few people were involved with it. Modernist sculpture, especially the autonomous object, they were mostly men and white, and it is in the western world. We’re not finished with that. That’s not enough. Also, I think it can get too messy, and too gestural and into nothing when everything is acceptable. It goes too far into language and away from the purely visual, like color and material.  I’m interested in all of that, like Joseph Kossuth. It’s dry, it’s interesting, but it‘s got nowhere to go. You’re like, yeah right, I know. That’s a chair. My work, it is just rooted in the physical, It just is a thing; it’s real. You don’t have to think, “What does it represent?” or “What does it mean?” It is just, like, it is here. And you’re here. And it is just that exchange, a sort of physical reality.

Image at top: Karla Black, Exactly That, 2012, plaster powder, power paint, cellophane and sellotape, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London and Galerie Gisele Captain, Cologne