Published on 30 November 2017

Karen Black (Portrait: Maja Baska)

The Australian artist chronicles a period of recovery and reckoning at Sullivan + Strumpf Singapore’s latest exhibition titled “Ordinary Poetry”.

By Melanie Lee

Australian artist Karen Black has always had a fear of falling, so when she slipped on a wet tile while gardening last November, she had to face that crippling fear head-on.

“The moment took less than a second, but I ended up with a broken leg, foot and ankle. I needed an operation and was on a wheelchair and crutches for months,” she recalls.

Being stuck at home and reliant on her husband made Black feel “trapped”. But in going through this period, she has created some of the biggest works she has ever made with “Ordinary Poetry”, which is currently exhibiting at Sullivan + Strumpf Singapore.

Karen Black, Table Manners, 2017, acrylic and oil on linen, 210 x 200 cm. (left) Karen Black, Walking Blind, 2017, acrylic and oil on linen, 210 x 200 cm. (right) Image Courtesy of Sullivan+Strumpf and the Artist

Her paintings may seem, at first glance, a series of pleasing pastel paintings. But each abstract yet figurative piece tells a deeply personal story about how she was grappling with this unexpected “empty time”.

With “Self-Imposed Exile (2017)”, Black recalls how she felt like she was being jailed, lying in bed with the piles of things around her. The stripes in the painting represent a kind of prison where she was unable to do things for herself.

However, over time, deeper ruminations sunk in and for the first time, Black did a large self-portrait of herself with “Walking Blind (2017)”. (In her earlier works, she would usually do a small self-portrait within a larger work) “When I started looking, I found all these aspects of myself I hadn’t seen before. I realise I didn’t know myself very well,” she explains.

Black also tried to find the lighter side of the situation with paintings such as “Table Manners (2017)”, a throwback to how she had to place her leg on the family dining table during mealtimes while she was on a wheelchair. “My leg would become a central point for discussion, and in a way, I was able to connect more with my family rather than just being in bed by myself,” she says. Having grown up in her family circus, she was also quite amused that some of the exercises she had to do resembled the warm-ups the circus troupe would do and painted “Circus Skills (2017)” in response to that parallel.

“I feel like I have pushed myself a lot for this exhibition,” Black says. “I took a lot more risks that I would normally take and I tried to be more confident with my brushstrokes.”

The name of this show derives from an art essay on Karen’s work by Stella Rose McDonald. In this essay, Black told McDonald about the flowers that people brought her when she was bedridden, and how she would watch their petals fall beside her while she looked out of the window. McDonald described such an everyday moment as “ordinary poetry”, something that resonates with Black after the fall.

“I appreciate the little things now. An ordinary moment can be extraordinary, and just being able to walk around the whole day is just amazing for me,” she says.

Karen Black Circus Skills 2017 acrylic and oil on linen 66 x 117 cm
Karen Black Self Imposed Exile 2017 oil on canvas 46x61cm. Karen Black Bed Mess 2017 acrylic and oil on linen 152.5 x 122 cm. Image Courtesy of SullivanStrumpf and the Artist.
Credit: Melanie Lee

Find out more about Karen Black’s works here.

“An Ordinary Poetry by Karen Black” will be held at Sullivan + Strumpf Singapore till 22 Dec 2017.  Click here for more information.

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