More than Words: An Interview with Karla Black


Scottish artist Karla Black makes large, multisensory sculptural installations that commingle traditional art supplies-plaster, chalk, paint, paper-with materials more familiar from the medicine cabinet, such as Vaseline, face powder and Alka-Seltzer. Her forms are abstract, yet uncannily suggestive of familiar objects. By constructing immersive, temporary environments as well as hulking stand-alone sculptures, the artist seeks to create totally absorbing physical experiences.

For her first, self-titled U.S. museum solo show (through July 28), Black constructed a multipart sculpture, Practically in Shadow (2013), in response to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Philadelphia’s high-ceilinged second-floor gallery. The work is made from plaster, powdered pigment, cellophane and bath salts, and some of its parts resemble decadent, oversized cupcakes, crowns and fluttering party dresses. Despite its pastel tones and subtle, cosmetics-store scent, the installation’s sheer mass creates an atmosphere of confrontation.

Born in Alexandria, Scotland, and now based in Glasgow, Black earned master’s degrees in philosophy and fine art at the Glasgow School of Art. A finalist for the 2011 Turner Prize, she represented Scotland at the 54th Venice Biennale, filling a series of rooms at the 15th-century Palazzo Pisani with huge cubes of perfumed soap and boulders of pink paper. She has exhibited widely since 2000, at venues including Modern Art Oxford, Kunstverein Hamburg, and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Black corresponded with A.i.A. via e-mail last week about the sense of loss that is integral to making sculpture and why bodily experience of the material world carries as much meaning as words, if not more.

BECKY HUFF HUNTER You created the sculpture Practically in Shadow specifically for, and entirely within, the ICA’s space. How long did this take and what was the experience like?

KARLA BLACK It took about nine days. The experience was hard work, just like it always is, wherever the exhibition is taking place.

HUNTER How do you feel about the completed sculpture?

BLACK I think it’s a good sculpture, so I’m happy with how it turned out. But I feel like I always do, like it’s a bit of a Pyrrhic victory, in that perhaps too much is lost to consider it particularly worthwhile. I feel like the pure joy and/or beauty of the experience of the material world (in terms of color and light and actual stuff) that my work emerges out of, and also the joy and beauty of the human interaction with that (the raw creativity) gets more and more lost. This happens not only as it all gets closer to being formed into a physical object, but also as it goes through the mincer of language via explanation and instruction, and as, out of necessity, it begins to involve other people, practicality, the restrictions of space, of rules, of gravity and entropy.

HUNTER Your work is deliciously seductive. At the ICA opening, I saw someone touch one of the sculpture’s peripheral puffs of plaster. What interests you about this tension between tactility and the fact that the viewer should not handle the materials?

BLACK I certainly don’t approve of touching artwork. It is especially important not to touch my sculptures because they are so easily damaged. What I hope for is an impetus toward physical response. This requires a bodily response to be transformed into an optical/cerebral one. I think that is the experience of the work that’s the most intriguing to feel and think about.

HUNTER It’s widely known that you are interested in Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theories, which are based around children’s play. How do her ideas inform your work?

BLACK My work isn’t informed by Klein’s theories as such. It just happens to share with them a prioritization of material experience over language. I have always prioritized sensual experience above language as a way to learn about and understand the world. I like the fact that Klein interpreted her patients’ physical interactions with the world, and found “meaning” there rather than only in their words.