One of the pleasures of having Karla Black’s enormous sculpture, Practically In Shadow, at ICA is hearing all the different things people compare it to. After taking in its powdery expanses of yellow and mint green, its great block of layered pink and white crowned in Cellophane, and its floaty polythene sheets, one word that rises to many lips is: confection. As I walked around the gallery with Karla the day before the opening, one staff member said, “I want to eat this like it’s a cake!” Another compared the Cellophane circle to a Buccellati ring. Exhibition curator Kate Kraczon has mentioned cotton candy; also the sky. I myself want to compare the pale dangling sheets to a great fishing net tinted pink by the dawn.
And nearly everyone mistakes the spots of yellow-white powder on the wide expanse of blue-tinged white for the dappling of sunlight.
While Karla walks me around the sculpture, Ingrid comes in and congratulates her on finishing it.
“When did you last see it?” Karla asks. A resident of Glasgow, she has been in Philadelphia for ten days making this piece.
Ingrid points to some small turquoise bits. “You were just getting to the blue.”
“That’s nail varnish,” Karla says. “There’s a funny thing that happens to the nail varnish when you pour it onto powder. It jumps around. You pour it in lines, and it forms into dots.”
Karla is passionate about her materials: nail polish and Cellophane, plaster powder and face powder, bath bombs and paint. “I love powders, pastes, oils, creams and gels,” she says. “You’re supposed to mix plaster with water and shape it into something and let it go hard, but I like the powdery aspect of it. I always love raw materials.” What compels her about this rawness is that it gives her work the sense of something in the process of becoming. “You can feel the potential of it, that sort of untransformed quality,” she says. “I like to think about how the material world is in a constant state of flux, and therefore the object is a fallacy. Energy becomes mass, then energy again, and so on.” Massive, though, it certainly is: the floor portion of this sculpture used nearly 7,000 pounds of stuff.
And then there are the colors. Karla always uses the same colors, which she describes not as pastel but as light. “I never use primary colors. I always mix them with white and bring them right down.” This too is about potential: keeping a color from resolving too definitively into something, maintaining what she calls “the almost or only just aspect to them.” She says, “A lot of the time I’m trying to float color in the air.”
Ingrid walks around the back of the sculpture. “It looks like flesh on this side. When you start moving around, it’s very alive—the blue is sort of crashing through it.” They come to a place where the powder spills out raggedly across the concrete floor. “It looks like a frayed hem,” Ingrid says. “A tassel.”
“I might need to clean it up a bit,” Karla says, touching it.
Touching the sculpture: that’s what you want to do when you stand in the room with it. Prod it, stroke it, test it. Maybe even taste it. But you can’t. You can’t.
Later, in a public conversation with Kate on the night of the opening, Karla talks about how she hopes for “a sort of impetus toward a physical response” from the viewer. Art, she says, is “part of the civilizing of the human animal. You have to transform the desire to touch the work—that physical impulse—into a cerebral one.”
I wonder if this is part of the reason so many of us seem determined to name what the sculpture looks like: a cake, a ring, a net, a tassel, a crown, the sky. It’s as though, if our hands can’t touch it—if we can’t eat it—we need, at least, to take it into our minds; to complete the artist’s gesture by pinning the work down. But the work resists. In every light, at every time of day, it looks like something new. Over time, as air currents and gravity do their work, it becomes something new.
“Decay is inevitable,” Kate observes to Karla in their conversation. “But it’s not something you court.”
“I’d love to have permanence,” Karla agrees. “But you would lose the energy and the life.”
“What happens,” someone asks, “when the show’s over?”
“As soon as I have finished working on it, the sculpture is permanent. At the end of this exhibition, the Cellophane and polythene elements will be kept for future installations, while the powder parts will be redone each time. So, all the powder that is here will be swept up and put in the bin.”
All photos by Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media.
Karla Black’s sculpture, Practically In Shadow, is on view at ICA through July 28.
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