Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award SAM

Click image below to view gallery. Images by Christian Capurro

Anna Briers

SAM Senior Curator

Karen Black is known for her gestural approach to surface across painting and ceramics. Her works explore politically charged themes around war, and female driven narratives across time and place. Her installation Temporary arrangements (2017) has been conceived as an exploration of materiality and form, while functioning as a symbol of resilience and endurance.

  • Black’s ceramic vessels have been mathematically up-scaled from third and fourth century glassware seen by the artist in an archaeological museum in Istanbul. Roman in origin, these receptacles were used to store an array of precious oils and perfumes used by all members of society. Their reproduction reflects the ongoing reiteration and reinterpretation of glass and ceramic vessels across the continuum of history. Some of these forms are just as likely to be found in a department store like Myer as they are in a museum context. Black considers them enduring forms that are inherently political, having survived centuries of conflict.

    At first glance, Black’s surfaces could be read in a formal way, as beautiful self-referential abstractions about colour and form. Here the surface of the clay body is equivalent to the canvas ground in her paintings. Hand coloured slip is applied in gestural brushstrokes, and daubs of paint are allowed to weep and cascade downwards. Closer inspection reveals the suggestion of faces, or the silhouettes of figures clothed in hijab – some stopped in grief, some gathered in groups, and some lying motionless. Black’s artistic lineage is not, in fact, mid twentieth century abstraction, but the subject matter of German Social Realist painter Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828), both of whom depicted sombre and sometimes harrowing scenes of human suffering in times of war.

    These sculptures function as memorials of survival, reflecting the endurance of Syrian refugees with whom Black worked with in Reyhanli, the border town for the Aleppo crossing in to Turkey. The layered surfaces convey trans-historical narratives about female experience, as well as feminist critique around the control and exchange of women’s bodies as chattel. A large-scale, predominantly yellow vessel with a fluted top conveys the graphic scene of a female refugee giving birth in a war zone. The ancient form of the Persian tear catcher (a device used to gauge a wife’s commitment to her husband by measuring the volume of tears she had shed) is realised in monumental proportions. Forms and details also suggest adornments and women’s bodies more overtly – hips, busts and pregnant bellies feature prominently. A matt-black glaze on a pedestal resembles the texture of a black leather handbag; a viscous looking glaze infers bodily fluid or mother’s milk; a length of grey-blonde human hair resembles a tassel that might attach to a perfume atomiser. Resting severed on a plinth it could alternatively be read as some kind of trophy, a sinister souvenir from a sexual conquest or a relic from a battle zone.

    These large-scale vessels are stacked in provisional groupings atop bulbous supports and geometric plinths. Tentatively placed, they are spatially responsive and could be configured in myriad other ways. This sense of impermanence is captured in the work’s title – Temporary Arrangements, reflecting the precarious placement of the ceramic forms, as well as the social displacement experienced by millions of women within the ongoing global refugee crisis.

    In this installation, the gallery architecture combined with the sculptural qualities of the ceramic forms and their plinths, produces an immersive quality that spatializes Black’s painterly concerns into a three dimensional context. A grey-blue curvilinear plinth suggests the gesture of a brushstroke, while another flat cylindrical form resembles a daub of paint that might be found on a canvas. These geometrical shapes have been applied as they would in a painting, to inform and unify the composition of the room and as directional devices to navigate the viewer’s experience.

    A subtle olfactory intervention also permeates the space, as Black has detonated an array of scented oils from Egypt, chosen for their symbolic associations. Using the balance of musk, oud, rose and frankincense combined with Australian sandalwood, a harmonious chordal structure has been composed between base, mid and high notes that changes dependent on the viewer’s location in the space. According to Black, the aroma of rose oil has signified secrecy since Roman times. Suspended above a meeting table, it symbolises the freedom to speak plainly and without repercussion. Art has forever been utilised as a platform to elicit debate and discussion about the state of the world. At a time when displaced refugees and migration are polarising subjects in Australia and indeed the world, these works enable a crucial dialogue by addressing pertinent themes.