Body creams, hair gels, lipstick, toothpaste; what would people do without a little help from our daily cosmetics? These every day elements seem to fit so casually into our lives. Could you picture these essentials into a piece of art? By now, most people reading this would probably imagine a tub of Vaseline casually held by Mona Lisa… and if you just imagined this, please feel free to backtrack and think again. We are on the topic of texture, malleability and childhood play, far, far away from brands and consumerism.
Artist Karla Black toys with our toiletries in a profound psychological way. Her sculptures give off an irresistibly sensual feeling. One could ask whether it is due to the choice of materials? Or simply because the textures look so inviting to touch? In both cases, the output is truly filled with alluring beauty.
Many artists have intrinsic connections with their artworks. In Black’s case, there is a real bond between the materials employed and herself, as a human being. By choosing to incorporate domestic, everyday products, her work exudes a sense of existence. As soon as we become aware that the work in front of us is made up of nail polish, jelly or even face wash, our technical or distant ‘viewer’ roles instantly shift as we become engaged with something that is known, human and touching.
As a contemporary artist who has exhibited for more than a decade, Black has a ‘new’, refreshed vision of art. She engaged her studies in Glasgow and focused on fine arts, sculpture and philosophy. She chooses to call her pieces sculptures and wants the audience to react to them as ‘…physical explorations into thinking, feeling, communicating and relating.’
Black’s pieces are threaded with continuity. She focuses on form and materials; this is translated with her work being extremely fluctuating and sensual. She often uses malleable materials such as plaster, paint, crushed chalk or cling film and layers them with other domestic products including toiletries or even medicine used to treat minor injuries such as Vaseline, Alka-Seltzer or Aspirin.
There are two clear types of elements in her work; everyday materials and ‘common’ art supplies. Black works with these substances, leaving some of them undeveloped or frozen in a certain state. Paint that never dries or plaster which remains as powder. Most of Black’s work is large scale. Her pieces exist suspended, hanging, or set on the floor. The work is often site-specific in order for it to feed back and respond to the given space.
She attaches great importance to materials, and explores their response when shifted from their original purpose. Black encourages physical and material experience over visual and optical form. This is witnessed in the complete ephemerality of her shows, as her work can never be reproduced twice, relating to the site-specificity and uniqueness of each piece within the defined moment of its creation.
Black’s artwork is constantly broken down and rebuilt; a never-ending sculpture, a work that is always evolving. She mentions that she had remodelled a series of pieces, searching for an improvement: once finished she simply entitled them ‘Better’.
The singular appearance of Black’s work in each exhibition invites us to focus on the present moment, connecting us with the ‘here and now’ whilst reminding us that everything is interconnected as a whole – Karla Black or Ghandi? That is the question! She has quite an interesting method of creation: instinctive and desire-driven first, reflection and questioning later.
Often criticized for her ephemeral work, going against the permanence of traditional sculptures, she accepts that temporality is part of her pieces: acknowledging that everything has an ending.
What struck me when seeing Black’s work is the process of ‘freezing’ an element in a stage of its’ development. This can be seen with her sculpture ‘Pleaser’ (2009) where pockets of suspended cling film are filled with powder and wet paint that never dries and remain in a static state, for as long as the piece exists. It is as if she is altering the organic evolution of a particular element, pushing it to standstill, halting at a defined a moment in time. Black’s work is highly influenced by her interest in Kleinian psychoanalytic theory. We notice this through a ‘play technique’ applied by the study of patients’ open and straightforward, physical approach to the outside world. Black states:
‘ …a lot of the work I make is on the floor… it has a clear similarity or relationship to early childhood play… usually carried out with formless materials… ’ (It’s Proof that Counts, 2010).
This is done in order for the audience to absorb the work’s tangible presence with the materials and the space involved over its’ mental or cerebral presence. I was able to feel this when I first saw her sculptures. The raw elements combined with the layout made me want to primitively feel the work instead of analysing it. Black seeks to trigger this inside of us. Because of the audience being in a formal context when viewing artwork (museums or galleries), there is ultimately a distance created: we cannot touch the pieces we witness. With Black’s work, this provokes a frustration, which leads our minds to inevitably imagine the materials and feel the texture of the artwork with our eyes in our profound endeavour to experience it ‘at first hand’.
Behind the purely physical aspect of Black’s work lays something penetrating and palpable. Her relation to psychology can be translated as a self-therapeutic need to produce such substantially rich sculptures. This specific choice of materials clearly shows a natural and simple yet effective way of working. The aspect of having such genuine domestic materials incorporated with traditional art elements makes her work accessible and playful to a wide range of audiences. What is important to retain is her preference for visuals and ‘reaction’ over language, and how words are just a small and insignificant portion of transmission. The rest is left as an experience triggered by our imagination.