View of “Karla Black,” 2018. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

View of “Karla Black,” 2018. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Karla Black

View of “Karla Black,” 2018. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Karla Black makes the kind of artwork that the janitor has to be instructed not to sweep up and discard. This drugstore expressionist deploys all kinds of cheap finery in rendering her delicate, perishable spillage. Powders and eye shadow and colored toilet paper are sprinkled, splattered, and smeared across surfaces often equally tenuous, unless they are simply the given floors or walls of the spaces where her work is exhibited.

Tattered instability is the appeal. Take a careless step and you just might destroy something. The tiny puffballs of Structure for Once (all works 2018), for instance: Scattered sporadically over roughly a third of Capitain Petzel’s ground-floor space, a few transparent crystals inexplicably dangling from ribbons above them, these little husks of poodlesque fluff asserted their strange artifice through color—green, pink, yellow, turquoise—like shreds of cotton candy left behind after the fair. Color is this artist’s thing, and she reportedly trawls the world’s retail outlets for odd shades of toilet paper with which to complete her works. But glass was the surface she mostly meditated upon at Petzel. Here, that concern started with the gallery’s front windows, which were anointed with varying pale shades of lipstick: Bring Jewels—the title of the piece—was the demand being shouted to passersby. Black’s works involve serious jokes regarding structurelessness, and her titles take them even further. They’re all fragments, Steinian snatches of language: The Rest Imposed, Mistaken For, Called Arriving, The Background Against. In their incompletion, they refuse to impose any further meaning, but rather complement the work’s tentativeness, which is where its real potency lies.

Stained cotton towels on radiators surrounding the gallery windows made me wonder: Were these what she’d used to smear the lipstick on the windows? Maybe so, but then they also became a work in themselves, Few Are Token. Looking around, one noticed that the show was rife with architectural interventions. Rectangles of glass sardonically connoting windows (all smeared, yes, with gooey goodness) were among them. Works such as Persuade to Return, which lists as its materials “glass, clay, copper leaf, paint, Vaseline, lipstick, lip gloss, moisturizing gel, chains,” were suspended from the ceiling, and glass doors were ingeniously installed in choice nooks. Especially reverberant was a door on the upstairs level, Rush to Correct, installed at a slight remove from the wall, so that its pink window smear—an amalgamation of eye shadow, lipstick, Vaseline, paint, and clay—created a shadow, extending the work into the realm of the truly untactile.

Perhaps because she uses soft colors and materials often marketed to women, Black’s work is frequently read in terms of a postfeminist exploration of the constructions of commodified femininity. But it can be quite aggressive and loud in its intellectual engagement with some of the core issues of high formalism. If there’s any artist who understands the truth behind substance and its myriad metaphysical connotations, it’s Black. Of course, liquid effusion is the sexiest means of dematerializing the art object; it’s this sort of joyous alloverness that makes me wish I were a jellyfish. Some just like to make a wet, sticky mess; luckily we can count Black among our number.

Travis Jeppesen