Karla Black and Tony Swain on 20 years of making
Artists and partners Karla Black and Tony Swain speak to Art Quarterly editor Helen Sumpter about their paths to becoming artists, their relationship with their materials and Black’s survey show at Edinburgh’s newly expanded Fruitmarket Gallery.
Who are Karla Black and Tony Swain?
Artist Karla Black was born in Balloch in Scotland. She studied at Glasgow School of Art, graduating with a BA Fine Art, Sculpture in 1999, an MPhil in Art in Organisational Contexts in 2000 and an MFA in Fine Art in 2004. Her sculptures – made from traditional art media, including pigment, plaster and paper, as well as cosmetic and natural substances, such as lipstick, Vaseline and earth – explore the visceral and emotional properties of materials. She has exhibited widely in the UK and internationally, was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011, the same year she represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale, and has work in collections including the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Tate.
Artist and musician Tony Swain was born in Lisburn in Northern Ireland. He studied at Liverpool School of Art and Glasgow School of Art, graduating with a BA in Fine Art in 1990. His paintings, made by applying pigment to newsprint pages, and often collaged, depict evocative, timeless, constructed landscapes and interiors that combine both figurative and abstract elements. He has exhibited widely in the UK and internationally, and has represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale.
Helen Sumpter: What were your individual journeys into becoming artists?
Karla Black: I didn’t go to art school until I was 23. I left school at 16 and initially worked in a bank. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but did know that my strengths were reading and writing and language, so I thought about being a journalist. I harassed my local paper until they gave me a job and that became more like an apprenticeship, where you would work on a newspaper and then do block release and eventually take a journalism exam. I stuck it out for six-and-a-half years but knew pretty quickly that journalism wasn’t really for me, either.
By the age of 18 or 19 I was becoming more interested in culture and would visit exhibitions in Glasgow every weekend with my brother, who, one Christmas, bought me a book about Rodin and a bag of clay, and that was it. I just started making sculptures in my bedroom and then I got a studio in Glasgow. When I finished work, in the evenings and at weekends I would go there. Again, it was my brother who eventually said, ‘If you don’t go to art school then you’re never going to meet anybody.’ So, I put a portfolio together, applied directly to the sculpture department at Glasgow School of Art, and I got in.
“I did kind of believe people went to art school to get into bands and was quite shocked when I got to Glasgow School of Art and people actually wanted to be artists” Tony Swain
Tony Swain: I knew I had a facility for art and thought, ‘If I apply myself to this, I can get into art college.’ I had a portfolio and got offered places at three colleges and chose the one I wanted. For me, it was really my way out of Northern Ireland. It’s the opposite of Karla. At the time I didn’t even mind what I was going to do when I got to art college. I chose Liverpool because I wanted to get into a band and Liverpool was a good music city. It was a similar choice with Glasgow. I did kind of believe that people went to art school to get into bands and was actually quite shocked when I got to Glasgow School of Art and people actually wanted to be artists.
KB: And, of course, you have been in several different bands, including Cylinder and Hassle Hound, and had quite a few albums out.
TS: Yes, I was really drawn to the idea that most of the music that I liked came from an art-school background. I still think there’s something about the way people from art schools think about music, as opposed to the way musicians think about music. It’s a little bit more imaginative, less to do with technique and more to do with ideas.
KB: But it wasn’t anything specific about art or music that first brought us together; it was that we had studios in the same complex and the people there and the people I lived with all went to the same parties and openings. I think it was around 2001; I’d finished my MPhil and hadn’t yet started my MFA.
At that point in my work I was just on the cusp of separating myself from my materials. I knew that it was about the materials, and specifically about loose materials, but I didn’t know quite how to present that. I was still handling them as part of the work, but never wanted it to be focused on me, or to be a performance. I had one exhibition where I was still part of it, but that was the last time I did anything like that; it was where I worked it out. It was just bits of things on the floor that had formed into very careful little sculptural forms. I used powdered custard and mixed some of it with water, took washing powder and crunched biscuit into it. And there was flour and toothpaste on the floor. They were small things, but they almost took up the whole gallery, and they were sculptures.
I remember hoping you’d be at the opening, Tony, and being disappointed when you weren’t, and then really chuffed when you came the following weekend.
TS: By that point it had been 10 years or so since I graduated. I had been mostly working from home, apart from time spent on a couple of really good schemes that you could join for up to a year, where you had access to studio space and got some money for materials. Those schemes were incredibly valuable, not just for the work, but for the social aspect. I think when we met, I’d only just discovered the practice that I’m still working with today.
When I started my BA, in the late 1980s, it was just after the group of painters known as the New Glasgow Boys, who had created a bit of a boom time for that particular way of painting [figurative depictions of social and environmental concerns]. There was a real hangover from that in the painting department that didn’t fit in with my work, which was more about using colour and depicting subjects such as a pair of yellow earmuffs, for example, which weren’t considered ‘timeless’ enough. It felt very insular compared to other departments.
By the end of art school I was painting quite traditional, observed still lifes that were also sort of subversive, and some portraiture – fairly faithful depictions of what was in front of me. The paintings were taking longer and longer, and then I pretty much stopped making paintings for several years. I was still doing bits of collage and printmaking, but it wasn’t until I got back into a studio again that the bits of painting I had been doing on newspaper pages, with the intention of using them in collages, started to gradually become the work. The painting was like an amalgam of the figurative work that I had been doing a few years before and the collage – an arbitrary surface with impositions of compositions, and the idea on top of that. It’s interesting that the actual quality of newspaper has drastically deteriorated over the years. But because I’ve been doing this for 20 years or so, I’m still using supplies of those old, better-quality newspapers.
“My work gets up against other mediums – it may almost be performance, installation or painting, but in the end it’s always very definitely sculpture” Karla Black
KB: And you have enough to last you many lifetimes!
Sculpture is always most interesting to me when it relates to impermanence, and an admission that any object is just the result of a collection of materials that have flown together in that moment. It’s only the human experience of time that makes that seem permanent. That’s exactly the sort of problem I’m dealing with in my work, which then has to be dealt with again another way when I’m presenting new and existing work in a survey show, like the upcoming exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery.
It’s always been important to me that traditional sculpture-making materials are the bulk of my work. I have such reverence for art, right back to the beginning, to cave art, and to that connection through materials over time. In a survey show some works will be sculpture that stands up by itself and gets put in a crate and can move around from place to place. There are some things that actually have to be put out by me, and some works that need to be remade. It’s a spectrum and every possible combination is there. For example, a powder work, that dates from 2007 or 2008, I’ll just redo. Then there’s the things where it’s almost like you’ve got a recipe and there are enough ingredients to last for 20 installations.
My work really gets up against other mediums – it may almost be performance art or almost installation or almost painting, but in the end it’s always very definitely sculpture. It may be only just sculpture, but what I’m trying to achieve is to do with a visceral response to that. If you can see that a material has been formed to a certain extent but if you touched it, it would still move, the material retains its energy. It also relates to the question of ‘Why bother making anything when the nicest thing you could ever see is just a fingerprint, because that’s the connection between the human being and the material?’ Doing anything more is like taking something away from it.
“I also deal with the idea of ambiguity in my work – is it interior or exterior space, is it distant or close, is it figurative or abstract?” Tony Swain
TS: That reminds me of a quote by Orson Welles, where he says something like every time he sees a film he feels like he’s lost something. I’m also very sensitive to that kind of trade-off, where every time I make something visually manifest, it feels like I’ve actually made it more difficult for me to access other versions, other imaginative routes that I could have gone down. So, there’s always that feeling that you’re talking about, Karla, where making something is a creative act, but an act through which something else is lost.
I also deal with ambiguity in my work – is it interior or exterior space, is it distant or close, figurative or abstract? And some works can end up very large-scale – I think the biggest one has grown into a panorama of about 12 metres – but they all start at roughly the same size. There are hundreds of things that are in progress in the studio, and if I’ve got a show coming up, then I know what sizes will work, and then I’ll complete things specifically for that. So, there are things that could be finished within a week, or they could take another 10 years.
KB: It’s been interesting to see the contrasting effect the pandemic has had on our creativity and other people’s. There are all the stories of people who, at the beginning of the first lockdown, found themselves with more time at home, and were actually connecting with their creativity. For me, it was the total opposite. All I could think was that this was such a crisis for human health and humanity that I was just paralysed by it.
TS: Yes, it almost felt like it was inappropriate just to keep on doing what one had been doing before. I couldn’t even say logically why I couldn’t do it, but it just felt insensitive to keep ‘doing another painting’. But I can understand why people who hadn’t painted before suddenly started painting, and also why people who were painting suddenly stopped. Both are emotional responses to this great change. But what I did find myself doing was playing the guitar a lot.
Although our work is completely separate, we do both seem to have a thing about quite impermanent materials. My paintings will probably change colour. The paper is going to get a little bit darker, so there is some kind of notion of having to accept the frailty of something, and the tentative nature of that making up part of the work, rather than pretending that element doesn’t exist.
KB: I think the main connection, though, is that we value each other’s work and really do support each other. We want the work to be the best it can be, and we also want the work to be out there. When Wanda [their daughter, who at the time of writing was six] was a baby, if I had shows abroad, for example, we just took her with us, and you, Tony, were there, looking after her.
TS: And if I have a show coming up then you will do a studio visit, usually towards the end of the process. At that point, it’s really great to have your viewpoint because sometimes you can see a value in something that I might otherwise have missed.
KB: We do also check each other’s texts and titles, and we will be totally honest if we don’t think that something works. With that, there is absolutely no filter.
A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
‘Karla Black: sculptures (2001-2021) details for a retrospective’ is on at the newly reopened Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, from 7 July to 24 October 2021. Free to all, 10% off in shop with National Art Pass.