16 November 2019

But Karla Black has found her niche: With body butter, powder and Vaseline, the Scottish artist explores the very own conditions of everyday materials.

By Katharina Cichosch

Making states visible, we hear time and again, is a quality inherent to art. That’s what it’s all about in its very best moments. So, let’s talk about states – not the social, individual, etc., but rather more literally those of the substance itself. And how these come about in each case: states of matter.

Here, there are actually some very specific aggregates that appear somewhat rarely in the fine arts and are hence virtually invisible even though we encounter them regularly in everyday life – namely the liquid or, more scientifically, the “fluid” state. To be even more precise here: the viscous state, in the form of an emulsion, for example.

What is it that is so different with Karla Black?

When you look at Karla Black’s installations, you notice relatively quickly that something is different. This in itself is remarkable – since the myriad of opportunities within the art scene means there is little that (at least at first glance) doesn’t exist. This or that material or compilation might appear to dominate in some years, but in general: anything goes. What exactly is it about Black’s work that transcends this “anything”? Is it the fact that she applies everyday materials – cellophane film, cosmetics – quite literally? Sure, but that too fails to qualify as a unique characteristic. Meaning we need to be more specific, look more precisely at what the particular pantry contents actually signifies.

KARLA BLACK, Installation View, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2019, Photo: Simon Vogel

Already connotations come to mind, characteristics that are readily ascribed to the materials she uses. There are indeed, one could say, very overtly feminine-seeming elements such as cremes, nail polish, etc. And then the colors! Pastels, pink, pale yellow, blue – these too are cited in the argument that this must in some way be feminine art production (or a play thereon). And yet: “Don’t call my art feminine!”, wrote British newspaper The Guardian, quoting Karla Black. Must one abide by that?

By no means, of course. Yet it is sometimes worthwhile not simply jumping on the first band wagon that such symbolism brings to mind. If the things alone are still supposed to be representative of this and that, then at some point they will cease to be precisely that, namely specifically locatable, and will instead simply become more interchangeable and random.

Don’t call my art feminine!

Karla Black
KARLA BLACK, Installation View, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2019, Photo: Simon Vogel

Secondarily, the ascriptions change more quickly than some might like: Nail polish, also a component of an installation by Karla Black, was initially a failed material experiment in automotive paint production before it triumphed as an adornment for the nails of its primarily female buyers. If we stick with materials for the time being and at the same time consider the title of this installation, “CONDITIONS”, then the aggregate might suddenly appear in a different light – Vaseline, for example, or body butter: Such things appear somewhat rarely in this very specific form.

Nail polish was originally a misguided attempt in auto paint production

After all, liquid materials naturally appear extremely frequently in art production, but this state is of a temporary nature. Inks, paints, even clay: “All these are examples of suspensions in which the solid components mix heterogeneously with those in a liquid state,” explains Robert Schallinger. In simplified terms, when exposed to air the fluid components eventually dry, leaving behind only the solids. Solvents often also play a role here.

KARLA BLACK, Installation View, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2019, Photo: Simon Vogel

Schallinger is a fluid mechanic and as such my contact who should be able to explain to me what distinguishes the substances in this state. He clarifies: “Fluids are not a group of substances. Rather, ‘fluid’ refers to a state a substance exhibits at the point in time in which I describe it.” And this includes, from a scientific perspective, both gaseous and (in the way we generally understand them) fluid substances. “Fluids are delineated by the solid,” Schallinger adds.

Everything in the world is a matter of time and temperature

And there are, of course, works of art in which fragrances (gaseous!), for example, or water play an important role. Vaseline or body butter, however – materials such as those Karla Black, among others, applies in her sculpture currently on display in the Schirn Rotunda – are fluids of a very specific nature. For they are emulsions in which the individual components of fat and water never entirely mix. Instead, their long molecule chains intertwine with one another. That’s also why, given the currently predominant temperatures and other physical conditions, they linger in this remarkably viscous state. This too, explains Schallinger, “like everything in the world is a question of time and temperature.”

KARLA BLACK, Installation View, © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2019, Photo: Simon Vogel

Here, the fluids expert continues, materials like Vaseline and those with a similar texture are also so-called “Bingham” fluids: They behave like an elastic solid at a certain temperature, so can be molded within certain boundaries and displaced. At the same time, the result is that Vaseline smeared on the floor, for example, is not really solid, but rather still alterable within the given parameters.

This brings us back to the states referred to by Karla Black, for example, in her work title “CONDITIONS”. The fragility and time-dependent nature of a work, or ultimately of all substances surrounding us, are notions art addresses time and again. Yet this state is rarely illustrated in such a downright self-definitional way: The dabs of Vaseline and cream, to which colored powders are sometimes added, are entirely unable to disguise their temporary state of uncertainty.