Karla Black: There Is No Hierarchy In Materials

Inside the newly refurbished Fruitmarket gallery the wall of text introducing Karla Black’s ‘sculptures (2001 – 2021): details for a retrospective’ tells us that the artist is searching for a paint that never dries and a sculptural material that never hardens.

I carry this beautiful sentiment with me as I ponder the works in the Lower Gallery. There’s a stack of polystyrene wedges, like slices of a cake, with pink paste like icing pressed between each one. I wonder if its actually set or if a swiped finger would make an impression.  My teeth wince in sympathy, thinking of sugar treats, of meringue. Searching the nearby walls it seems I’m looking at ‘Want, 2012’ which lists its materials as:

polystyrene, Vaseline, marble dust, and plaster paint. So yes, the inner paste could still be wet after all this time, almost a decade. Is this proof of concept?

A stack of polystyrene wedges, like slices of a cake, with paste like icing pressed between each one.
Want, 2012

There is a mound of crumpled cellophane, tall as a child, smeared with baby pink paint. Is this ‘Be Perfect for People, 2012’? The info plaques around the room make it difficult to identify individual pieces. I think they’d be better on the floor, busy as it already is. And I can’t seem to get a decent photograph, especially not one that will work in black & white.

Photographing work like this at all is a losing battle. ‘There Can Be No Arguments, 2010’ floats beautifully in the aptly titled Small Gallery, the powder underneath whispering of a world that is softer, gentler. How is the powder scattered? How do you sell or store or recreate something like this? Who is Galerie Gisela Capitain in Cologne, whose name is written underneath many of the titles and material lists? Is it the commercial gallery that represents Black? One of her galleries? Does that mean this work is archived? Or unsold? Or unsellable? With pieces like this do you buy the concept and recreate it at home? It’s almost anti-art market… if I understood such things.

a sheet of polythene floats in the air in the aptly titled Small Gallery, suspended from the ceiling by almost invisible threads. Underneath it lies plaster powder – as if rain from some magical cloud.
There Can Be No Arguments, 2010

And amongst her greatest hits is new work too. ‘The Unhelpful Constant, 2021’ features oil paint on tights so wet it looks slightly obscene on the stretched fabric. Yet it’s also strangely delicate and floral and deeply feminine.

The four edges of a pair of tights are pinned in place on a wall, stretched taut. The fabric is covered in gobs of wet looking oil paint.
The Unhelpful Constant, 2021

All the works are very static, even the ones that are hanging, as if the pieces are holding their breath. It’s powerfully grounding. You are here, now, in this moment looking at this… material. That’s it, that’s what’s happening.

And the effect is tenfold upstairs in the Upper Gallery. A new work, and one of the highlights of the retrospective, is here: ‘Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much, 2008/2021’. The entire floor is covered in baby pink plaster powder, with occasional pieces of thread and their bobbins. I want to take my shoes off and walk barefoot across the space. I am viscerally reminded of the indoor beach by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, ‘Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019’ for the Lithuania Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, but there visitors were allowed, nay encouraged, to play in that sand. I have to admit, I prefer when work like this is interactive, though there is something beautiful in keeping it pristine.

the floor of the Upper Gallery is covered in plaster powder, with occasional pieces of thread and their bobbins. The image also shows the pillars holding up the roof, the skylights, a staff-only door, and the staircase to the rest of the gallery
Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much, 2008/2021

There’s subtle colour variations and the light from the ceiling windows casts a calm, flatness over the surface. It doesn’t look made by human hands, though there have to have been many hauling bags of plaster powder, adding the plaster paint, carrying and scattering and smoothing. I almost wish the thread wasn’t there, but maybe it would have been too simple without it.

Then down to the newest addition to the gallery – the Warehouse. This is one of the reasons for the refurbishment and does look astonishing with its exposed brick, industrial beams, dark wood. Looking at ‘Waiver For Shade, 2021’, the new installation work, I find myself slightly offended at the way Black has smeared Vaseline on the walls, like chewing gum stuck to the underside of a desk. But I love the earth she’s brought in, the way it leaves relief-like prints on the ground that make me think of square bags placed heavily there by men with calloused hands – the beautiful beams being used to lift flour, sugar, tea. Functional. I wonder what industrial places will be reclaimed by artists and art galleries next – whether empty offices will fill with paint and plaster, plug sockets repurposed and venetian blinds a sudden signifier of refined cultural taste. You can imagine Black in here sticking gold leaf on things, having a blast. 

within the warehouse space, with its exposed brick, industrial beams, and dark wood, Black has hung pieces of gold and copper leaf in the air, left squares of earth on the floor, and smeared vasaline on the walls.
Waiver For Shade, 2021

Honestly, may we have her always – in an eternal present of wet paint and plaster powder. I am so happy that the Fruitmarket is open again and so happy they picked Karla Black as their first exhibiting artist here. 

Karla Black sculptures (2001-2021): details for a retrospective runs until 24 November 2021 at Fruitmarket gallery on Market Street in Edinburgh, EH1 1DF literally just round the corner from Waverly Station’s Old Town exit.

By Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne

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