Karla Black: Her Dark Materials

Glasgow-based sculptor <strong>Karla Black</strong> is representing Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale – a massive, six-month-long festival of art. She talks to us about making on-site and her recent Turner Prize nomination

Feature by Andrew Cattanach | 01 Jun 2011

There’s something intangible about the work of artist Karla Black. Without being in any way cryptic or inscrutable, it gives the impression there’s something crucial just out of reach – a single term or idea that would make sense of it all if only we could get purchase on it.

Instead, we might find ourselves falling back on indeterminate platitudes about the subtlety of her work, her feminine use of space, or worse still, the unmonumentalness of it all. Resonating with distinctly negative tones, these terms fail to positively decipher the work’s true attributes.

Even in her own words, the work she’s making for this year’s Venice Biennale seems a little uncertain. “[They] sit somewhere between being paintings, performances and installations but, in the end, they will definitely be individual sculptures, albeit only just.”

Taking place over eight rooms of a late-Gothic palazzo in the Cannaregio area of the North of Venice, the show looks to be ambitious in size, with Black making most of the work on site. “There will be materials like powder paint, cellophane, chalked sugar paper, polythene, soil, vaseline, soap and sawdust,” she says. “I've been working with these materials and colours for a few years. Hopefully it'll be like a culmination of all the experimentation I've been doing for a while.”

Integral to the work is its precarious nature, how it seems to teeter on the edge of chaos and entropy. Folds of paper look to unfurl and drifts of powder paint wait patiently to be carried upon the next breath of air. To what degree are the materials controlled? What, if anything, is left to contingency?

“The hanging sculptures are usually either made of chalked sugar paper or very thin, papery polythene sheets that I shake up with coloured chalk dust inside a bin bag,” she explains. “I form them during and after hanging them and it's at this time that the work is actually made, so it's a very meticulous process in terms of the aesthetics involved.”

The materials used are not traditional to sculpture. Rather than falling back on conventions, Black has over the years developed a lexicon of substances, seemingly picked for their delicacy. What's more, there appears to be a tendency towards the man-made. Is there a dialogue between the, perhaps, contingent nature of the work and the definite, durable, nature of materials such as polythene?

“I don't differentiate between materials. I don't see much difference between 'natural' and 'man-made' materials; it's all the same to me. I don't believe there is any such thing as an 'unnatural' material.”

Two years ago, artist Martin Boyce represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting in the same aged palazzo. Drawing much of his inspiration from the surroundings, and particularly the building itself, Boyce’s work took on a slightly altered aesthetic, introducing rusty, brown tones to a once more vibrant palette. It was as though Venice’s humid sea air had been corroding the works for years. In what way will the context affect what’s being installed at this year’s Biennale?

“I just make the work very directly in the place where it will be shown, so there is always a physical confrontation between the sculptures and where they are,” Black explains. “The work isn't site specific in a traditional sense, but in a more oblique, and also a more direct way.”

Both Karla Black and Martin Boyce have been nominated for this year’s prestigious Turner Prize. They’ll be up against Hilary Lloyd and George Shaw to compete for the £25,000 grand prize. How does it feel to be nominated for the eminent Turner Prize, and is it odd being up against fellow Glasgow-based artist Martin Boyce?

“I'm surprised and pleased to be nominated,” she says. “I'm just ignoring the element of competition – it's only designed to create media interest. It's an impossible thing to have a competition between artworks or exhibitions. I'm just looking forward to making work in the Baltic.”

Receiving her Turner Prize nomination for her solo show at Capitain Petzel in Berlin last year (pictured), this has perhaps been the most significant twelve months of Black’s career. To represent your country at what is regarded the biggest art event in Europe, and be nominated for what is perhaps the most high profile art prize in the world in the same year is without doubt a momentous juncture. Only the second time Scotland has been represented by a solo artist at the Biennale, it’s indeed an affirmation of one’s prestige to be selected.

With the twice Turner Prize nominated, former ECA research fellow Mike Nelson representing Britain at this year’s festival, there’s no shortage of Scottish-affiliated artists on display. A world apart from Nelson’s overwrought installations, Karla Black’s show is sure to be a hit with the critics. Maybe they’ll help shed some light on the intangible nature of her practice, bringing to the fore that inexplicable kernel that ever eludes description.

Palazzo Pisani Calle de le Erbe Cannaregio 6103 Venice Italy

4 Jun - 27 Nov 2011