There is no image, no metaphor...

A few days ago I saw Karla Black’s show at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. It was an unplanned visit, a lucky find on my way to the Polish Embassy. Although familiar with the name (Black is a well established and successful artist who represented the UK in the Venice Biennale in 2011 and was one of the Turner prize nominees),  I never seen her work before. The first impression was one of surprise and immersion in the word that is playful and open to interpretation; something that great art does…The use of everyday materials and elevates (literally with numerous pieces suspended in the gallery space) them into forms that are pleasing, but also enigmatic and almost dreamy.   

Karla Black makes sculptures that begin with a desire to play, to experiment with certain mediums, certain colours. The sculptures she makes hang, heap, spread, reach, spill, stand and hover. Her materials include cosmetics, over-the-counter medicines, cleaning products and packaging as well as the paint, paper and plaster more usually found in fine art. She uses them because she feels affinity with them, and wants to see what they can do. She keeps them as raw as possible, so that the energy they embody is in the present rather than the possible future (eg powdered cement, before it becomes solid and utilitarian). 

 This extract comes form the gallery’s website:

Karla has imagined together with us an exhibition that combines a selection of sculptures made since 2001 with new works made in and for the Fruitmarket in the weeks before the exhibition’s opening. In the ground floor Gallery, standing, hanging and low-lying volumes and planes are constructed from cardboard, sugar paper, polystyrene, polythene, and cellophane, and worked on with Karla’s signature powders, pastes and gels. In the light and airy upper Gallery, a new, spreading work in plaster powder, powder paint and cosmetics. In the new Warehouse, an experiment in materials including earth, body butter and variegated gold leaf. Karla Black’s sculptures have a defiant force. They are demanding and disruptive as well as beautiful and inspiring. Resolutely abstract, they reject figuration – as Karla says, the only people in her sculptures are her, while she is making them, and us, while we are looking at them. As art, they make space for us by prioritising our experience of them in the here and now. 

For me the main question  came from Karla’s interview shown during the exhibition; her sculpture, she says, is absolutely non-representational. ‘There is no image, no metaphor’ Rather, the point is the sculpture’s sheer materiality, its heft and presence and fact of being in the world as it confronts the viewer.

It is a question about the attraction of abstract art and our interaction with it on a purely visual level. How do we connect with Karla’s art, which instead of evoking memories or intellectual allusion, gives us solely form,  colour and space?   Do we find the work more appealing because we are familiar with the materials like sugar paper or spools of thread? I think this is secondary to the visual appeal of her work: the pastel colours, pink light reflected from the powder floor installation or the contrasting black soil and glimmering gold leaf…  There was ‘no metaphor’…