This winter we have been spending time with a new display of works by one of Scotland’s leading contemporary artists, Karla Black. The artist has generously gifted these seven sculptures to Scotland’s national collection, which is already home to a work from earlier in her career, Contact Isn’t Lost, 2008.
These sculptures have changed the way we walk through and experience Gallery 9 of New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville at Modern One, which closes on 12 February 2023. They also invite us to rethink our understanding of sculpture’s fixed state, as something that doesn’t change over time.
Black’s practice is characterised by her unique combination of traditional artistic media with materials we find in our homes or encounter in the intimate and mundane moments of our lives. Body moisturisers, conditioner, hairspray, kitchen roll, cling film, Sellotape, cotton wool, and chalk are materials that are familiar to all of us and often carry personal and sometimes emotional associations.
In these seven works, Black plays with the possibilities of transparency and lightness. These are see-through sculptures that use watered-down acrylic paint, nail varnish and Vaseline to paint loose, gestural marks across, and in between, their cellophane and glass surfaces.
During the installation period, Black explained to us that the cellophane in The Body Presumes, 2014, and The Body Presumes Again and Again, 2014, is the same material that flower bouquets are normally wrapped in. Here, a single-use plastic that temporarily protects the cut flowers we might give or receive (and pay little notice to, if any) was repurposed in sculptures with a much longer anticipated lifespan. Similarly, the sandwiched glass forms that make up Told, Just Once, and Adds Up, both 2017, are made from the same shower screens we find in our bathrooms at home.
When the artist first created these room-spanning works for an exhibition in London almost a decade ago, she walked over the vast lengths of cellophane to transfer the oils from her body (footprints, but also some handprints and knee prints) onto their transparent surfaces. This oil residue then meant the paint wouldn’t stick in those areas, creating ghostly transfers of the artist’s body that also disrupt the field of painting and the flow of colour.
For their reinstallation in Edinburgh, we worked with Black on the gallery floor to adapt these sculptures for inclusion in New Arrivals at Modern One. This involved rolling the excess cellophane sheets of The Body Presumes Again and Again into pillars on one wall and taping them flat against the other. Black also removed the old Sellotape tabs used to suspend the work previously and took the opportunity to add her fingerprints (dipped in coloured mica powder) onto fresh Sellotape strips.
During the installation process, she remarked that these works were very much ‘finished’ when they were first made in 2014. However, her ongoing interest in being involved in her sculptures’ redisplay – often altering their materiality – refreshes them with a playfulness that runs through her practice. Ultimately, this undoes the convention that an artwork’s creation ends once it is finished.
Karla Black’s works often blend traditions of art making, with one sculpture composed both of elements that should endure for as long as possible (crated and stored between displays) and other elements that may be replaced and refreshed each time, according to the artist’s instructions. Her works therefore challenge conservators to adapt certain methods and practices within their profession.
Through her generous gift, Karla Black has entrusted these works to the care of the National Galleries of Scotland, where we will look after them on behalf of the people of Scotland. Public collections are where she has always wanted her work to be – prompting new perspectives on art’s relationship to everyday materials. Black’s sculptures question the idea of the gallery and its collection as a repository of stable artworks that must be preserved, century after century, in an unchanging fixed state. She wants us to ask the question: how much creativity can we allow into the museum, on a permanent basis? Her hope is that the National Galleries of Scotland, as her sculptures’ new home and host institution, will welcome their experimental and playful nature into our ways of caring and working.
Blog by Brian Castriota, time-based media conservator, and Stephanie Straine, senior curator, Modern & Contemporary Art.
With thanks to Karla Black for her ongoing dialogue and commitment to care, and the staff of Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, for their collaboration during the planning stages of this display.