Artists & Designers

Karla Black (b. 1972)

This essay is adapted from the publication Concentrations 55: Karla Black_, published in conjunction with the 2012-2013 exhibition._

Karla Black currently resides in Scotland, where she was born and later attended the Glasgow School of Art. In recent years, Black has riveted attention for her compelling work that delicately yet assertively challenges the normative language of sculpture. Black's decisive ability to invigorate and upend a rote language of sculpture is distinguished by her fearless challenge to the limitations of traditional form and her idiosyncratic capacity to exploit the physical properties of her chosen materials. Neither shirking nor overtly embracing traditional notions of beauty, Black acknowledges that she wants her sculpture "to be attractive, but also for the materials to remain as raw and unformed as possible." Paramount, too, is the artist's predilection for traditional languages of aesthetics and abstraction. Her sculpture represents not only a formal engagement with the physical properties of material and the metaphysics of space but also a literal encounter between the artist and those materials.

It is perhaps through her choice of materials and the utterly individualistic deployment of them that Black has distinguished herself as an original voice among the crowded field of contemporary sculptors. She constructs objects of surprising mass and scale while using what seem to be the most vaporous materials imaginable: cellophane tape, paper, powdered pigments, finishing plaster, bath salts, toiletries and cosmetics, nail polish, and Vaseline. Black refers to the substances with which she works as "impermanent and raw," and she is quick to caution against interpretations of her work that attempt to map gender onto her sculptures because of the materials she selects to produce them. The artist notes that she does not use "makeup or toiletries for their connotations, for any metaphoric or symbolic meaning. It's not their relation to language or narrative or autobiography that I'm interested in, it's the pure material substance, and the color."

Though one could not be faulted for recognizing a stream of natural and pacific associations in her work—earth, sky, wind, and ocean—Black sees her sculptural practice rooted in a language of abstraction rather than representation. The artist has said, "My work is materially abstract; not a depiction of the figure." The physical world presented in Black's sculpture is not offered as a simulacrum of nature because, as she states, "it doesn't become something that elucidates the world." In taking what appear to be relatively unstable substances and fashioning forceful statements from them, Black performs a very personal and physical act of transformation.

Black sees her work as grounded in various historical antecedents, particularly the "anti-form" practices of Land artists and others of the 1960s, and possessed of underpinnings related to feminism and psychoanalytic theory, especially the studies of Melanie Klein (1882-1960), a post-Freudian analyst and innovator in object relations theory (which suggests that how people relate to others and situations in their adult lives is shaped by physical experiences in infancy.) Black's interest in Klein's theories and in the artistic practices of German expressionism and American abstract expressionism, Viennese Actionism, Land art, anti-form, and Feminist Performance relates to her own frustration with the inadequacy of language. Indeed, Black has said,

"I think of language as an inadequate, primitive tool. The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal, and material. What comes first is color and form, composition and scale, and then, a very firm and separate second, comes language. Language is not part of the work. Instead, it sits alongside it in a very peculiar way. The titles are given to the works when they are finished, and are part of their relationship with theory and history."

Language does play a role in Black's work. Her titles are precise, literary, and highly specific. Black states that her titles, such as Platonic Solid, Persuader Face, Unused To, and Made to Wait are "about behavior, about command; individuality; standing on your own." It is critical to understand that the artist always prioritizes material over language; it is the physical, or nonverbal language that is central to her process.

Because Karla Black's sculptures are undeniably appealing, even seductively beautiful, the multivalent process informing their creation is perhaps too easily obscured. For Black, her work is essentially about the encounter between an individual and the material world, about finding one's way in that world and the artist's physical encounter with materials and place. In her words, it represents "individual struggle, physical struggle, and physical exhaustion. It is bigger than me." Black's sculpture, therefore, is less about intuition and more about the physical act described in its making.

In creating her work, Black sets herself a series of challenges. The process of creation is not meant to be easy, and in fact the artist seems to continually lay traps that she must devise ways to escape. This process of developing solutions transforms her personal struggle into aesthetic achievement. She acknowledges that when she was at art school she intentionally didn't learn many traditional sculpture skills, things like how to make a plinth, or how to hang a shelf. In a sense, a key element in producing her work is to constantly answer those questions of craft. "I want to see what my resources are, to seewhat I can do, to see how far I can push myself intellectually, aesthetically, physically," Black has said. "I want to know what my limitations are, and how I can adapt to make the best of them, or the most inventive, creative, or experimental use of them."

Karla Black's sculpture possesses a near palpable energy, no doubt an invisible vestige of the self she invests in their manufacture. Just as her works record a private encounter between the artist and her material, they also invite an active dialogue with the public. Her sculptures confront the viewer, but they do not assault. Rather, Black's sculptures are autonomous productions and inanimate objects that through their material nature engender associations with things that are somehow active. No matter how stable, these sculptures seem infinitely capable of mutating or migrating as form. They represent energy and movement simultaneously enveloped by entropy.

Adapted from

  • Jeffrey Grove, Concentrations 55: Karla Black, October 19, 2012–March 17, 2013, Dallas Museum of Art.

Related Multimedia

Late Night Artist Talk with Karla Black in conversation with Jeffrey Grove, The Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art

Web Resources