Modern Art Oxford

Walking up the steep and open steps at ‘Modern Art Oxford’, I became struck by the ominous pink glow that was bouncing off the walls. I was greeted by a room dominated with pink chalk purposefully scattered around the room in an off-set square, purpose made for the gallery’s upper room. In the vast expanse of baby pink chalk are blue squares of sugar paper emerging from the pink dust and in the corner is a once square heap of chalk layered with these pastel colours that are throughout the room. There are no points for prettiness as my crude description of the work invites you to think of such an ugly piece of modern art, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Karla Black has created a gorgeously rich and beautiful depiction of conceptual sculpture, within which are hidden messages about our society.

I ducked and dove to avoid tearing down the cellophane and paint hanging sculpture above my head as I first walked into the room. Afterwards it rippled in the breeze from my successful attempt so I walked, carefully, along a narrow gangplank of floor that wasn’t covered in the pastel pink chalk. Anti clockwise was the next movement and it felt like the natural decision to make, leaving me to continue with my journey through the gallery. I felt amazed by Blacks ability to control her viewers throughout the whole exhibition, though the subtle pathways and positioning of work she put in front of me.

Moving throughout the three rooms, the work, although large and overpowering, can almost be missed as it has the ability to seem natural within the space. Although Room 2 houses a bright yellow cellophane package, inside holding a mix of vaseline and shampoo, it fits and seems right. The piece cascades from behind a pillar and spills out across the floor mimicking the ramp that it is beside. It is here that there is clear evidence that Karla Black works to fit within the gallery confinements, and makes informed decisions based upon the architecture, the space and the environment. Black’s choice of materials illustrates the deep issues that surround her work, mainly around feminism in both art and performance and also in society.

Karla Black’s feminist issues brought to mind the tough messages The Guerrilla Girls send out to the art world. Their bold statements that “less than 3% of the artists in the Met. Museum are women, but 83%of the nudes are female” puts the 1960’s feminist movements into the current day. Black is similar in this respect, as she plays with bold materials that are stereotypically feminine, such as shampoo, household cleaning materials and makeup. By making theses ‘womanly’ materials ever-present across many of her previous works, she is playing with the common and crass assumptions of females and their beauty regimes. She is clever, yet at the same time obvious, but it works as an extremely effective statement about society. Like Black, the Guerrilla Girls play on their obvious choice of attire of stockings and suspenders and a “gorilla mask confounds the stereotype of female sexiness”. Some may call the subject matter overused, overworked and just women burning bras, but it is far from that as it is still a very recent issue within our culture, which is meant to be spoken and discussed about.

However in this exhibition, the ‘woman’ in Black’s work didn’t shine through as much as it could, as it felt very suppressed by the materials she used. Black has such an extensive back catalogue of female supplies – foodstuffs, shampoo, household cleaning materials and makeup, but in this exhibition the gender implications were more often than not ambiguous. I very clearly saw this in Room Three where eerily self standing bits of sugar paper, and ghostly hanging pieces, were buckling from my movements around them. ‘Don’t Attach, Delay’ seemed like white paper – a very unisex, in-the-middle colour to choose – but it was in fact a once beige piece of sugar paper that had been chalked white. As the viewer I could therefore never know what it was originally, its identity masked and another one put in front of me to judge. The other piece in the room was a cling film and baby oil combination, with hints of blue paint, so again was a neutral ‘not-really-anything’ in regards to the colour choice.

Black’s work, however much I can say it doesn’t do what I presumed and expected of it, it still screams Karla Black. Her choice of colours – baby blue and baby pink in ‘Platonic Solid’ made the sculpture battle out a conversation of man versus woman, girls against boys. The colours we’re given from birth, these stereotype colours we can never shake off. How can I then complain? Black’s work is still is a mixed up mish mash of everyday materials that now, due to her craft and skill as a conceptualist sculptor, is a piece of modern art and has just as equal amount of status as other modern sculptors. Black has presented to me, as the viewer, her ability to control me and to guide me though rooms whilst presenting deep issues of gender. Although I may moan that her feminist streak has been dulled down in this exhibition, I do understand that an artist’s work is subject to change to excite viewers and to develop her own practice. She cannot be expected to create the same make up and hair gel sculptures otherwise I would have changed this review to moaning about a stagnant artist. Karla Black has mixed up her usual motions, and for that I am grateful, as she has made a creative, diverse and more importantly distinct exhibition.