Glasgow-based Karla Black is known for boundary-pushing experiments with materials, both conventional and less so. Though her installations employing toothpaste, cosmetics, and powdered custard might come to mind first, plaster powder—albeit frequently in raw form—remains her primary medium. For Black, the potential within a material is the key point of interest, and she seeks to arrest a work before that potential is lost or becomes fixed.
Above all, Black’s resolutely abstract works emphasize the experience of sculpture—a quality that comes to the fore in her current exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery. She had previously worked with Fruitmarket for the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 (the same year she was nominated for the Turner Prize), and now, with “sculptures (2001–2021): details for a retrospective,” she has taken over the gallery’s freshly renovated and expanded space, installing new and existing works that employ her signature materials as well as experimental approaches to earth, body butter, and gold leaf. One new work spreads a carpet of colored powder across the floor of the upper gallery, and in another, a Vaseline-covered floor bounces light around the space, reflecting off hanging sheets of painted and powdered cellophane. Both of these installations underscore her powerful affinity for the horizontal plane. Fiona Bradley, the director of the gallery, cites the “defiant force” of Black’s works, which she aptly describes as “demanding and disruptive as well as beautiful and inspiring.”
Anna McNay: You didn’t begin studying art until you were 23. Before that, you worked in a bank and also trained as a journalist. What made you realize that you wanted to be an artist?
Karla Black: I knew that I wanted to “do something,” but I didn’t know what. I’d had that feeling since I was about 18 or 19, but I didn’t know what it meant. I thought I would write, and I tried that, but it didn’t do it for me. I started to go to exhibitions with my older brother, who bought me a bag of clay and a book about Rodin for Christmas when I was 19 or 20. I began making sculptures in my bedroom and never stopped. I eventually got a studio in Glasgow, and I used to travel there every night after work and on weekends—I worked on the Clydebank Post newspaper at the time and lived with my parents in Alexandria (a town 15 miles northwest of Glasgow). After a year or two, my brother told me that he thought I would never get anywhere if I didn’t go to art school. I was reluctant, but I put together a portfolio. My younger brother, who was a photographer, took photographs of my terrible clay figurative sculptures for me. I applied to the sculpture department at the Glasgow School of Art and was accepted.
AMc: You’re quite clear that your work is about the materials, and the focus should not be on you as an artist. How does this link with the less-than-conventional materials that you choose to incorporate into your work, including, for example, powdered custard, toothpaste, and cosmetics?
KB: I don’t use materials for their cultural connotations or for any autobiographical narrative, symbolism, or metaphor. Basically, you can break down what I use into categories of powders, pastes, oils, creams, and gels. I really love materials that have a degree of potential to them, such as plaster powder. Traditionally, in the history of making sculpture, you would mix it up, and it would go through a chemical process. It would become a harder permanent form, and it would have the structure of a traditional sculpture. But I prefer to use it just as powder. In a way, I like to try to retard the potential within the material, to not lose that life that it can have at a certain point.
AMc: How do you know at which point to stop?
KB: You can often differentiate one artist’s work from another’s by where they choose to stop within the process. I stop quite near the beginning. The reasons for that are to try to have paint that won’t dry or plaster that won’t set, because I feel that the real life of the creative moment is there. That’s not me stopping before a work is finished. It’s a choice, very much a careful aesthetic decision to stop at that point while the material is still in a raw state. I’ve always felt that once the paint was dry, or the plaster set, then the work was a bit dead—especially for other people, people just looking at it; there was no room left for them to enter the work, even if only in a cerebral way.
AMc: Despite being best known for using less conventional materials, the bulk of your work is made from more traditional plaster, paint, paper, and chalk—but treated, as you’ve described, in a non-traditional manner. What comes first: an idea or concept, or the material that you want to explore? Is there even a concept to the work beyond the material itself?
KB: To explain more about my relationship to materials, it’s important to say that, to begin with, I work purely out of desire or from the unconscious. I see a color or a material and think, “I really like that, I want to see a lot of it, so I’m going to use it.” In terms of making artwork, it’s pretty easy to paralyze yourself at the beginning of the process by having any kind of expectation, pressure, or specific outcome in mind. It’s difficult enough anyway, so I give myself permission at that point to do whatever I want—just to give it a try. That’s how I choose my materials. When I start to work with them, quite quickly the conscious mind comes into play, and so you have something like an editing process. You have to create some sort of attempt at structure, perhaps. That’s purely because, when you’re working with materials in this way, and you’re making abstract work, there’s the potential for it to be just purely gestural. That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not what I do. I feel as if it could be far too self-indulgent.
AMc: How much are you limited by the possibilities of the materials and their potential combinations?
KB: I tend to think of the materials as something that I cannot 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 it is very important to do what you want to do, but I also believe that you can make something “good” in any material and in any medium, and that’s what is really important. Because it is very difficult to make something “good,” you may as well do what you want to do, using the materials and the colors and the medium that you want to use. There may as well be some pleasure in it for you as the artist. Understanding the connotations by exercising my conscious mind at various moments within the process of making the work is, for me, also totally necessary in order to determine the aesthetics and to think about what “meanings” may be created by or through them—otherwise, as I’ve said, the work would be purely self-indulgent. In the end, it is the judgment and the decision-making that count, and they can be seen in the final aesthetic experience. The best aesthetic experience, I think, is to see an agile mind at work.
AMc: How much time do you spend experimenting, and how many of these experiments lead to successful works?
KB: All I can say really is that I do what I want to do. That’s the most important thing for me. Making art is about freedom. In terms of what actually transpires, that means if I like a color, I’ll use it, and if I feel like working with a particular material, I will. I don’t think too much about what I’m doing in terms of how the process goes exactly and what my behavior is. Too much self-consciousness would kill it, especially at the beginning.
AMc: You’ve described your work as “not only pictorially abstract but also materially abstract.” What do you mean by this?
KB: The material does not necessarily work itself up into structure—for example, plaster powder is not mixed up into hard plaster, it is just used in its potential form. In a way, pictorially speaking, this is similar to a picture of a blob not being worked up into a face.
AMc: Where does your inspiration come from?
KB: I’m inspired by other artists. Helen Frankenthaler, Karen Kilimnik, Carolee Schneemann, Hayley Tompkins, Cathy Wilkes, Robert Smithson, Richard Tuttle—it would be a long, long list if I went on.
AMc: Can you say a little about the influence of psychologist Melanie Klein on your work?
KB: I don’t think that she influenced my work, but her writings helped me to understand more about what I am doing. I relate to the fact that she worked with babies and children who were pre-speech, or beyond speech; she watched their physical interactions with the room, with simple wooden toys, and interpreted “meaning” from that.
AMc: You have said before that sculpture is always most interesting to you when it relates to impermanence. Can you expand on this?
KB: I think I said that sculpture is most interesting to me when it holds true to the fact that the object is a fallacy.
AMc: Some of your works need remaking each time you show them. How does this operate practically, and how will it operate when you are no longer around to do it?
KB: There are detailed guidelines and contracts and diagrams. It is all in hand and very boring.
AMc: What is it that attracts you to working on the horizontal plane?
KB: It is part of the work’s general ambivalence and contradictory nature that what it tries to be is almost nothing at all and yet, at the same time, it is the most physical and concrete of all artistic mediums—sculpture. I am always trying to find a way to allow a raw, creative moment to enter the world. Often, I am attempting to retard materials in either a raw or wet state, finding ways to almost float a material or a color or both, either at eye level or, at least, into the viewer’s vision. So, instead of trying to underline a metaphysical dimension, I am doing the complete opposite—trying to underline the purely physical.
AMc: At what point do you title a work? How significant is the title to the work’s interpretation?
KB: The title comes at the end, after the work is finished. Language is secondary, as it is in psychoanalysis, in a way. Maybe it is a naming of a behavior, like trying to answer the question: “What have you done?”
AMc: What kind of response do you hope to elicit in the viewer?
KB: At least an impetus toward physical response.
AMc: What have been the highlights or key events of your career in the decade since you represented Scotland at Venice Biennale in an exhibition curated by the Fruitmarket Gallery? Has your practice has changed significantly during that time?
KB: I had a child in 2014, and I have had many solo exhibitions in America, Canada, and Europe since then. My daughter, my partner, and I always travel together, so it has been a whirlwind. My practice, though, has largely stayed the same.
AMc: What was it like to work with the gallery again, this time on home turf? How involved were you in the curation?
KB: We know each other, which made it easier. I was very involved in the curation and installation; we worked as one. It was a privilege to have been chosen for the inaugural show of the reopening.
AMc: What about the two new commissions that you made for the exhibition? Are they site-specific?
KB: It’s not like that. They aren’t commissions. It’s just making work in the space.
AMc: Can you describe a typical day in your studio? Do you have a specific routine?
KB: I don’t have a studio. I don’t have a routine.
Karla Black’s solo exhibition, “sculptures (2001 – 2021): details for a retrospective,” is on view at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh through October 24, 2021.