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Karla Black at the Fruitmarket Gallery

Ethereal and suspended both in time and in the gallery space, Karla Black’s exhibition of abstract sculptures inaugurated the reopening of the Fruitmarket Gallery after almost two years of renovation to annex the adjacent space of the Warehouse. Fruitmarket Gallery and Karla Black last collaborated in 2011 to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, the same year Black was nominated for the Turner Prize. Despite the subtitle of the exhibition, details of a retrospective, this isn’t a traditional survey exhibition. Although the exhibition displays twenty years of practice by the artist- including both existing and new works- within the walls of the Fruitmarket Gallery we come to reconsider what we imagine with the term ‘retrospective’ as it becomes clear that the concept of time- as flowing strictly from past to future- doesn’t apply to Black and her sculptures. 

Black embraces the contradiction between the highly tactile quality of her sculptures and their material frailty to explore the tension between permanence and impermanence as her sculptures questions our idea of stability in relation to time and materiality by defying decay and gravity. In a video-interview, Black expressed her desire to make art a ‘permanent mark that doesn’t change.’ While walking in the lower gallery among the sculptures developed throughout Black’s career, this intention seems apparently contradicted by the impermanence of the material she chooses. She uses Vaseline, which keeps paint from drying, pulverised plaster is incredibly unstable and hard to conserve, gold and copper leaf are delicate just as their shining threads moved by the breeze of the exhibition space. In her own words, ‘the form of her sculptures never quite settles’: Pulverised plaster, if mixed with water, would create a concrete, permanent structure, stable and apparently more equipped to resist decay than an ephemeral sweep of powder.

View of Lower Gallery exhibition space

However, by using these elements in their unsettled form, Black overcomes this conventional view of solidity associated with endurance and manages to capture and delay perpetually the potential of each sculpture’s material. She creates sculptures that haven’t worked themselves into a structure of permanence and stability so that ‘the energy they embody is in the present or the future rather than the past.’ The material’s raw potential and its energy defies its fleeting instability in the face of time.

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The embracement of change and caducity as a constant can also be appreciated in the artist’s choice to keep the same title for the sculptures that she reworked over time. This may be interpreted as a way to express the continuation and endurance of the idea behind the artwork challenging its deterioration and allowing it to metaphorically stand the test of time.

Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much (2008/2021)

Black’s work is also capable of making the audience feel suspended in space- not only in time. Visitors climbing the stairs of the Upper Gallery are welcomed by the blushed light of Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much (2008/2021). Immersed in such feathery and ethereal light, the gallery space around them transforms. An expanse of pastel pink plaster powder covers almost entirely the floor, the perfectly even surface only bears the mark of small spool of thread in hues of pink and pastel colours that rolled over and were left on the plaster sweep. Other solitary threads rest on the surface, too light to leave any mark; no trace of human passage, nor any sign of the artist’s gestures can be detected on the untouched pink stretch. Although the joyous buzz of the downstairs café could reach the gallery space, I felt a white glowing silence surrounding myself and the other visitors. I found myself tiptoeing around this pink vision potentially moved by the delicacy of its material. Reality seemed far and muffled in the face of the bright white light that filtered through the roof windows and made the bare white beams and walls of the space glow and reflect the pink powder. The perceived silence, the feeling of suspension and softness in my own movement and in those around me evoked a snowed landscape or a cotton-candy cloud. 

Contrasting with the ethereal impression of this piece, in the new space of the Warehouse, Waiver for Shade (2021) uses soil, gold and copper to respond to the dark industrial architecture of this space. Each of these works responded and enhanced the renewed space of the Fruitmarket Gallery achieving Fiona Bradley’s- director of the gallery- view of ‘having a space that comes to live when in dialogue with art.’ 

Waiver for Shade (2021)

Where in the bright upper gallery the presence of the artists and the mechanics necessary to create the artworks were conceived, in the installation in the Warehouse the soil on the ground bear the marks of the artist’s hand. The contrast of soil and copper evokes the idea of an underground space where audiences are guided to mine through the ambivalence of the heavy soil and the ephemeral golden and copper leaves and threads that move reacting to the movement of the public. By comparing these two works we witness the spectrum of the artist and her materials’ potential as – in Black’s words – ‘material is always flying together or flying apart.’ These installations allow the audience to visualise how within Black’s practice elements in their raw form are capable of maintaining their ambivalence and their potential to tend towards universal harmony and entropy as evoked by the polarised installations in the Warehouse and the Upper Gallery. 

 A majestic return for the Fruitmarket Gallery, Karla Black’s immersive abstract sculptures exhibition offer an escapist yet grounding experience capable of re-introducing audiences to the gallery spaces and simultaneously capturing art’s potential to transport the public’s imagination in alternative realities. 

Image: Punctuation is pretty popular: nobody wants to admit to much (2008/2021) by Karla Black. Photograph credits Sofia Cotrona

By Sofia Cotrona

Originally from Italy, Sofia Cotrona is a history of art student at the University of Edinburgh. She is a young freelance art writer published by Hyperallergic and art editor for The Student. She is passionate about feminist and decolonial art interventions, and she is also an advocate for youth art accessibility as a member of the Scottish National Youth Arts Advisory Group.