Absolutely Curtains: Karla Black’s Diaphanous Walls at Modern Art
Report from London
Karla Black at Modern Art
October 13 through November 7, 2014
4-8 Helmet Row (between Mitchell and Old streets)
London, +44 20 7299 7950
Modern Art gallery recently moved back towards the East End of London, having been (in 2008) one of the first galleries to go west. There, Glasgow-based 2011 Turner Prize nominee Karla Black (born 1972) has fitted a site-specific installation of separate but related works to an elegant and airy two-room space. For over a decade now, Black has been making such installations out of her characteristic mixture of art and non-art materials: paint, plaster, chalk, cellophane, make-up, gels. All are used in a distinctly raw way — the chalk will be dust, the plaster in powder form. The dominant element at Modern Art is what art historian, critic, and curator Briony Fer has called Black’s “literal versions of Frankenthaler’s translucent veils”: room-width wall-come-curtains of cellophane, irregularly and faintly colored with a mixture of paint and nail varnish. Named The Body Presumes (all work 2014), The Body Presumes Again and so forth, they hang from straps of sellotape and are sufficiently light that the ambient flows of the viewer’s approach make them swish across the floor, adding a restrained aural aspect.
One must pass through door-like openings to reach the more substantial works beyond. In the first room, one cellophane screen gives onto what seems in context a heavy hanging-form Times made from chalked sheets of sugar paper. The second room has three barriers of cellophane before we reach the suspended brown wrapping paper of Prevent, and the show’s only floor-based artwork, the flattish mound-shaped sugar-paper structure Pre-empt. As each cellophane wall has three layers, washed with color sequences — such as yellow, green, blue — the limits of seeing through them are reached, and so there’s a sense of uncovering inner secrets as one moves into the work.
It’s all rather seductive, and – however formless and fleeting its materials may seem to be — is also precisely controlled. It’s no surprise that Black has said that, “Aesthetics are so important to me and the work is not about decay. It is about preserving this really perfect moment.” Indeed, she asks collectors to send her an annual photograph to prove that their purchase is still as it should be. Consistent with that, Black has spoken about her very particular color preferences, holding, for example, that cerise pink is “disgusting,” and explaining, “I can only go in a tiny little bit of the spectrum, especially in pink. There’s a really specific, really pale baby pink, which is what I like.”
So, that’s the look of it, but what’s the substance behind all this insubstantiality? Is it, perhaps, to deflate the pretensions of patriarchal monumentalism by summoning up such traditionally female zones as the bakery and nursery, using lots of pink, and employing materials — especially cosmetics — which women tend to use more than men? Black will have none of that. “It is ridiculous and annoying,” she’s said. “Why do people call it feminine? Because it is light, fragile, pale? Because it is weak, impermanent?” We should, it seems, look towards Richard Tuttle rather than Phyllida Barlow to find parallels for Black’s concerns. Yet I think that masculine-feminine contrast is there, however she protests. So is a child-like aesthetic — toddlers always want to engage a little too directly with her work — which can also be seen to cock a snook at the authority and seriousness of sculptural tradition.
The child’s perspective chimes with another aspect: how walking into the work physically involves the viewer. Black has spoken about prioritising material experience over language, and you might see that as paralleling a baby’s exploration of the world. The aims here are as close to a painter’s as a sculptor’s, though Black’s approach is also theatrical in that unlike most abstract painting it transforms materials in an illusionistic way. And that shifting of how we view the materials is a significant factor in the work’s seductive impact.
This installation is also one of her most architectural. That adds another to the many possible classifying dyads that Black keeps just out of definitional reach: art versus non-art, art materials vs domestic materials, temporary vs permanent, awkward vs elegant, high-minded formalism vs children’s birthday parties, architecture vs sculpture vs painting. The work enacts the lack of categorization it asserts. Beyond the pleasure in materials and their transformation, the point of this show, then, is something of nothing: it’s the insubstantiality of form matched to evasion of categorization that makes Black a substantial artist.