Karen Black The Science of Last Things
An Ordinary Poetry
Sullivan + Strumpf Singapore, 2017




Oh, flowers. So much, and yet so little, is contained by their ordinary poetry.

As the artist Karen Black lay confined to her bed in November 2016, with broken bones scattered from her leg to her foot, flowers were her steady companions. As they arrived in the arms of friends and piled up around her, they formed a bedside calendar. I read somewhere that—despite tradition—flowers are the worst things to bring to the ill or grieving: as they fall and fade, flowers remind us of our finitude.

Karen’s only view outside was through her large bedroom window, which returned an almost static image of the wind and the trees. This single aperture—and the flowers and the room—became her measure of the world. [In her most recent work, she has taken the particular measurements of that window and made her paintings to scale.] In the bedroom, she would lift her head at regular intervals to check how many petals had fallen to the floor. The fast-forwarded elegance of life and death was contained within each bloom. Set adrift in this new world, Karen felt small and insignificant. Her solitude—her separation from the familiar study of her world and her studio—was to become her subject. In her poem “Large Large White Flowers” Eileen Myles writes;

I’m re
lieved to be living
one day
without camera
or pen or
watch
I felt totally un
watched
alone w this
non assignment
this deliberation[…]*

When I first encountered Karen’s paintings (by accident, on a too long family holiday in stifling heat just north of the Tropic of Capricorn) I was reminded by how convincing paint can be; her surfaces demand close, sustained inspection. Shadows are clues for eyes, negative space shifts into limbs, glazed pools of colour collect as faces (faces so particular—like bubble gum just before it pops.) Her work plays with its own contradictions; figuration and abstraction become useful alternates for history and myth, which collude on the painted surface as they do in life. If contemporary abstraction forms an image of how the world feels, then Black is all abstract. Time, both contemporary and historical, is shaken and stirred and settles momentarily here; developed, gently printed, but unfixed. 

The familiarity I feel in the presence of Karen’s work is arcane but certain. Recent works like Bed mess, Floating dream, Body shell, and Table manners recall duty, illness, the strange proximity of motherhood and childhood and, particularly, the betrayal of our own bodies. In the spectral shadows and shifting parameters of Karen’s work, I see a skilled yet automatic hand that might claim to outsource creativity to a higher power. I think of the Spiritualists, of the bright and ecstatic palette of Hilma Af Klint. I think of the maudlin faces of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Each one of Karen’s paintings seems part of a larger whole. Like Klint and Redon, her work is concerned with the science of last things—with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind—and is contained by the unhurried contemplation of everyday objects and people. Like Morandi, but on acid.

Women who paint themselves know something of duty; to paint your own image—one so used and misused in art’s semantic archive—is always a political act. The task of the mother, writes the artist Hannah Black, is to hold the false coherence of history in her mind. Since I encountered Black’s women last summer, I’ve been trying to recall them in my mind in order to decide who they are. If they are archetypes, then the way in which they are painted—open and emerging—contradicts that prototypical definition, confirming that female experience is not made in a mirror. Karen’s subjects [call them women or flowers or the artist herself] refuse equivalence and identification, both acts that erase meaningful difference. They are forged in the artist’s own manifold experience—but they emerge historically.


*Eileen Myles, “Large Large White Flowers”, The Lifted Brow #25, March 7, 2017.

Hannah Black, “This is Crap: Why is abjection making a comeback?”, Frieze, Issue 23, Spring 2016.