7 November–9 December 2006, Galerie Sandra Buergel, Berlin
Predisposed to destruction, the work of Karla Black sets up perilous encounters whereby viewer subject and art object are invariably altered by the meeting. On opening the gallery door to her latest show of work, a great gust of cold Berlin wind sweeps in to scatter what suddenly seems to be the presciently titled ‘Mistakes Made Away From Home’, a huge, powder, floor installation and the centrepiece at Sandra Buergel’s new space in Hedemann Strasse.
Such obliteration is not uncommon to Black’s works—floods, drafts but mostly people tend to be responsible for the damage, including the artist herself—and the installations’ built-in transience threatens to hold a mirror up to our own precariousness.
This palpable fragility aside, however, Black’s work secretes that strange fascination which one might equally get out of piercing the sticky skin of hot milk.
The materials—Vaseline, PVA glue, hair gel, to name a few—quietly mutter a tension between states, neither solid nor liquid. These chemical plastics congeal together, supplementing the organic matter of what could easily be sperm, dead skin or hair.
Unarticulated and ambivalent, the site-specific shapes resist torpor, averting the icy Medusa gaze of petrifaction and the death that it brings. But in refusing the rigid aesthetics and materials of classical sculpture, Black’s works seem haunted by the orthodox canon. The monolithic ‘Nest Fed and Yet’ obstructs the front and back gallery, appearing as a ghostly memorial headstone, while the variations of texture in the massive ‘Mistakes Made From Home’ appear like an excavated Parthenon relief dusted with pristine alabaster plaster.
These forms give an absent nod to monumental figuration or a grudging gesture towards portraiture, and with such intimations Black’s installations appear to exhibit a terribly human spectrum of emotions: crumpled, damaged, dejected, silent.
This melancholia besets all the works. Black’s disconsolate forms divulge a lack of resolution between fragment and whole. Their confinement to an unresolved symbolic ‘thing’ exposes a loss of connection between the installation object and the sum of its parts, between the signified and its often enigmatic title. ‘In-built’ is suspended on a cellophane sling, reminiscent of a deflated edition of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s ‘The Swing’, none of the Rococo eroticism here, just loosely assembled static objects—wrinkled sugar paper and cracked egg shell—burdened by gravity and drooping.
Black’s art, even within the confines of this modest solo show, displays a maturity that is startlingly daring. Shunning Beuysian heroics for an art that appears more intent upon conjuring the familiar than mystical, the installations are in a constant state of breaking down, unfit for nature’s elements.
The damaged and subversive classicism indulges the fragmentary. The artist often razes her own pieces at the end of a show’s run, and the installations go on to exist as artefacts of the viewer’s memory. But the installations’ inexpressible shades, creases and cambers begin to decay with every attempt to recall their exact shape, name and parts, supplementing its former physical presence with a haunting forgetfulness that serves to reminds us that Karla Black is one of the most promising artists working today.
Isla Leaver-Yap is an arts writer and critic