Perhaps one challenge of using everyday materials to create sculpture is revivification: how best to proffer a solution using recognizable materials when a formulaic response will seem cliché or tired? Some artists create extraordinary work from ordinary objects through accumulation — whereby the same object is used incessantly — and ask viewers to reconsider a known form through refreshed perception. Beginning in the late 1950s, Arman (b. France, 1928-2005) collected rubbish to make sculptural objects called Poubelles (“trash bins” or “garbage cans”) as well as identical pieces (violins, clocks, tools), generating relief sculpture. In 1962, Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b. 1929) crafted a work, Accumulation of Stamps, 63, which riffed on Minimalism and on the sameness of one form through collage. Tara Donovan (American, b. 1969) has used clear plastic drinking straws, pencils, buttons and Styrofoam cups to create vast organic forms that are as ethereal as they are ephemeral. Repetition of a consistent form is how some have expertly resolved the problem of creating work with mundane, castoff objects.
In a recent exhibition at David Zwirner in New York, Karla Black (Scottish, b. 1972) installed a complete environment of abstract form also using everyday materials: powder, cellophane and over three hundred floor-to-ceiling lengths of Sellotape, the British brand of adhesive tape. Black doesn’t traffic in accumulation, but in the transformation of daily materials as sculptural form. On the floor, a large pink and white striped expanse is beside a pastel blue area. The soft powdery surface spreads across the floor, evoking a blurred, unfurled flag. Above the striped section, the artist hung strands of transparent tape which reflect light and shimmer over the powder carpet. Echoing the display of ground stripes were the equally linear threads of this see-through ribbon. That tape is clear evidence of the artist’s course: her pink fingerprints are visible across the surface, implicating both her presence and her process. In the far reaches of the gallery, bulky pink and blue paper sculptures lurked – intruders on the minimal scene where floor and space became interchangeable. These informal hulking sculptures loomed over the scene. The artist added intermediary, hanging objects almost as a bridge between the supple ground and the invasion beyond.
Black was on the shortlist for the Turner Prize in 2011. On the occasion of her Turner nomination, she told an interviewer: “Sculpture is what is important to me. It’s its physicality that matters.” Black continued to describe her process and the reason for the primacy of a sculptural object in comparison to a wall painting or a text. “Any sort of physical engulfment by or absorption in material reality can be more of an escape than the optical, cerebral one offered by representational painting or the narrative storytelling of language. That sort of physical engulfment or absorption in the material world is actually the most complete freedom that can be felt.”
In her display at Zwirner, there is a cellophane window which beckons the viewer into the scene. One expects a crystal clear sight through this opening, but because the material is draped and folded, fragmented or distorted views of the artist’s installation ensues. The artist’s intentional skewed lens through that window leaves an ambiguous perception of the powdery and chalky sculpture.