VAN July/August 2015: ‘If You Shout, No One Listens’ Jason Oakley Interviews Karla Black

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Karla Black, Likeness, 2015, polythene, powder paint, plaster powder, thread, 180 x 150 x 110cm, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, photo by Denis Mortell


Jason Oakley: You’re well known for your use of unconventional, colourful and decorative materials in your sculpture – including cosmetics, craft and decorative materials. What were some of your initial motivations of working in this way?

Karla Black: I made a decision early on to make sure I do what I want to do, and to use the materials and the colours that I want to use. I love powders, pastes, oils, creams and gels. I work out of a desire for materials and colours. At one particular moment I might want to see a very large amount of powder in a certain colour, so I’ll lay that out so that I can see it.

When I’m making a work, even a large work in a gallery space, it’s just like someone making a painting in their studio. What’s different is that, because the materials and structures in the finished work are often retarded in states of potential – in that they remain structurally and materially abstract, or raw or somewhat unformed – people can see the trace of my hand or my body, or the energy of a gesture still within them.

JO: What has appealed to you most about making work for IMMA?

KB: The best word I can think of to describe the reasons why I decide to make a particular work for a particular space is ‘practical’. The practical realities of the room or space offered to me determine what sculpture it would be possible to make there. I respond to a site in a very physical way. All I’m thinking about is what shape it is, where the door is – because that determines how people will first see the work – how much light there is and whether there is daylight or artificial light.

The corridor I am showing in at IMMA is long and thin and the work is long and thin; the rooms are small and square and so the works are small and centralised. The materials for this show are chosen because of the amount of daylight that is available. Cellophane does very well in sunshine and in bright artificial light, or a mixture of both, because sunshine makes it sparkle, and polythene does well in controlled, soft daylight, which allows it to appear soft, papery and powdery. The processes used to develop the sculpture are physical, experimental and very hands-on.

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Karla Black, Prospects, 2015, plaster, cellophane, Sellotape, pencil, lip liner, eyeliner pencil, green concealer, spray paint, soil, 235 x 200 x 1860cm, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, photo by Denis Mortell

JO: You’ve described your work as physical explorations into thinking, feeling, communicating and relating. Could you elaborate further on some of the ideas that underpin your practice?

KB: The sculptures are rooted in psychoanalysis, particularly Kleinian psychoanalysis. There is a link, for me, between theories about the violent and sexual underpinnings of both individual mental mess, as in neuroses and psychosis, and the formlessness of specific points in art history, i.e. German and Abstract Expressionism, Viennese Actionism, Land Art, Anti-form and feminist performance.

Recently I have taken formless materials through a process of tentative repression. Essentially, my work is made from mess or formless matter (that which is in a ‘pre-object’ type state) and from waste or used materials (that which is left ‘post-object’), as well as from straightforward art shop supplies. None of the work is totally formless, since there is obvious aesthetic intent. The finished things are almost objects, or only just objects. While nearly being performances, installations or paintings, the works actually retain a large amount of the autonomy of modernist sculpture.

I first and foremost want to prioritise material experience over language as a way of learning and understanding the world. Whereas Freudian psychoanalysis, which I am also fascinated by, is based in language – a talking cure that holds the father as the central figure for meaning – Melanie Klein was one of the first analysts to work with children: with babies and children who were pre-speech. She invented a series of very simple wooden ‘toys’ and, through those, was able to analyse the meaning of a patient’s direct relationship with the physical, material world. By inventing her ‘play technique’ she also put the mother at the centre as a figure for meaning.

What I see as the ‘quietness’ of my work also comes from this psychoanalytic position, in that it should be listening work, in order for there to be room in it to accommodate the people who look at it. While it has emotion held within it, perhaps as its primary core, and is political, it does not shout that out. Loudness is not a position from which to initiate a proper argument or discussion. If you shout no one listens, so it’s always better to begin from a position of quietness, while hopefully at the same time being able to hold onto the true views, decisions, emotions and meanings that have naturally occurred within the work.

I am interested, primarily, in the individual unconscious. There is often a physical struggle involved in arriving at the structure of my sculptures that then solidifies itself into an idea about, or an overall attitude towards, problem solving. Known rules and techniques are intentionally not learned or adhered to. Instead, more haphazard, individual methods are found. This can be seen in the sculptures as evidence of touch or something close to performative gesture, or as stubbornness or will: allowing my own individual unconscious desires and preferences to lead the way into making my own mistakes and therefore learning to find my own way through the world. I tend to think of the materials as something that I can’t help but use, something that comes out of desire, out of the unconscious. I can obviously choose to let myself go along with that, or not. I choose to go along with it because I think that I, and everyone else, should be allowed to do what they want to do.

One of the things I think about the most is how Klein tells us that anybody’s first experience of the physical world is another person’s body: the mother’s body. I like to think about how that experience then extends, quite soon afterwards, to the horizontal: to the ground. Since a lot of the work that I make is on the floor, and is often only a very slight covering on the floor, it has a clear similarity or relationship to early childhood play, to that short stage of early childhood messy play, which is usually carried out with formless materials (milk, for example) directly on the floor.

JO: The IMMA brochure text notes how you chose your materials for tactile / aesthetic appeal, rather than cultural associations, but are you ever concerned with the possible associations viewers might bring to your choice of materials?

KB: No. People can think whatever they want to think. It doesn’t matter to me. My intentions are formal, so when I’m asked about my intentions I explain that. But I know that the work has a life of its own and that people come to it with their own experiences and connotations.

JO: You worked with assistants while installing the work at IMMA, but also spent time alone working and reworking each piece to get the specific quality and aesthetic you require. How important is this ‘alone time’ in developing the work? And is a sense of your hand being involved in the work, and ideas around making, important to you?

KB: Yes, very important. There are sculptures that I make out of materials and processes that I have used many times before and so the outcome will be fairly predictable. If I’m starting something entirely new then I will know less about what it might become. The materials used and the limits of the surrounding conditions affect all of the work, so I can never totally control it. I could never conceive of a work in a diagram or a drawing or a maquette and then scale it up and make it how I had imagined it. That’s not possible because of the kind of materials I use and the sort of forms that I favour. I let go of a certain amount of control in order to let the material take over as much as is advantageous to the aesthetics of the outcome.

Karla Black (b. 1972 Alexandria, Scotland) lives and works in Glasgow. She attended the Glasgow School of Art (1995 – 2000 and 2002 – 2004), completing BA (Hons), MPhil (Art in Organisational Contexts) and MFA degrees. In 2011, Black represented Scotland at the 54th Venice Biennale and was nominated for the Turner Prize. Black has recently made solo exhibitions at institutions including: Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover, Germany (2014); Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA, and Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands (both 2013); Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, USA; Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, Germany and Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (all 2012); Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Nuremberg, Germany (2010); Modern Art Oxford; Kunstverein Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany and Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland (2009), among others. Her works are held within many prestigious collections worldwide including: the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; The Hammer Museum, LA; Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich; and Tate Gallery, London.

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