The Artist Whose Work Roars With Stories Of Female Inequity

Karen Black hasn’t always given herself ‘permission to talk’. But in this new exhibition of bright, colourful semi-abstract portraits, It’s Not Real, Karen’s work roars with intimate stories of female inequity.

Following a successful career as a costume designer for theatre and opera, Karen returned to study Fine Art at Griffith University Queensland College of Art in 2011 after having kids. Since then, she has gone on to use her voice in a big way, creating work which challenges gender inequality, within the arts and beyond.

Sally Tabart

Artist Karen Black with works from her latest show, It’s Not Real. Photo – Anna Kucera.

‘Protest Banner’ by Karen Black.

‘Baggage (from above)’ by Karen Black.

‘Projectile’ by Karen Black.

‘The Long Face’ by Karen Black.

‘Drawing The Line’ by Karen Black.

‘Outsider’ by Karen Black.

‘Fireworks’ by Karen Black.

‘Nervous Wreck’ by Karen Black.

‘Fish tank with mountains’ by Karen Black.

Sally Tabart
9th of March 2020

Sydney-based artist Karen Black‘s work explores loaded social and individual female-driven narratives, traversing the complex interchange between the personal and the political. Comprising a series of bright, semi-abstract portraits, It’s Not Real takes us inside the bedrooms of the characters on her canvas, weaving personal narratives into her interrogation of value, objectification and exclusion of women.

The works in this exhibition take no notice of their boundaries, with paint spilling over from canvas and right onto the frames. Ahead of her show opening on Friday at Sullivan+Strumpf in Sydney, Karen divulges more about how It’s Not Real became a reality!

Your show description states that your work explores the ‘complex interchange between the personal and the political’ in female-driven narratives. When does the personal become political when it comes to women? And how does your work speak to that?

I think that whenever we talk from a woman’s perspective it is political. All of the paintings in this new show are set in bedrooms as a way of talking about the personal space that is also political.

History shows us that women are still underrepresented in the art world, earn less than men and win less prizes. Less women go on to be given solo shows in the collections of major museums, and yet the number of women enrolled in university art degrees is substantially higher than those of men. This narrative works across all aspects of society, and so is something that affects me quite personally. It’s been difficult for me to give myself permission to talk but I feel now more able to do this due to the current discourse.

How does the exhibition title, ‘It’s Not Real’, play into the subject matter?

The title of the show was initially a mantra for myself while painting, to try not to be too anatomically correct in painting the body – to be more abstract. As time went on it seemed that all of the women I was painting were layers of my own history. I began thinking about the world I grew up in and where I am now and how extreme the differences are. It’s Not Real is a statement about the denial of our circumstances and arrangements, an almost unbelievable exclamation about the world we now live in.

Can you talk me through the process of creating this exhibition? Where does it begin and end?

Well, I can say that it ends when the work is collected from my studio and taken to the gallery, but it begins in many ways. I’ll research through my photo library, read, tend to my plants, make small collages, draw, make ceramics and play with different materials, all as a way of finding my way through the work I’m making. I mix all of my own colours on the canvas and try to develop colour combinations that are interesting and challenging for myself. In this body of work I’ve tried to make the colour combinations uneasy and unreal. They are colours that could not exist together in nature so I see them as many worlds smashed together into one work.

Sometimes I clean my brushes on a blank canvas at the end of a day painting to not waste the paint, but also to make it not so terrifying to begin the next work. The beginning is hard, but sometimes finishing the work is a lot more difficult if the beginning is not good. Everything in between is problem solving in one way or another. I’ll put them on the floor, turn them upside down and use any way I can to trick myself into new ways of thinking about the work.

What is inspiring you at the moment (in your work and otherwise)?

I’m really inspired by women artists who have been working for many years and are only now being recognised for their work. Artists like Rose Wylie, Miriam Cahn and Maria Lasnig. I have a couple of great books with Miriam Cahn’s writings and I find strength in her voice. I recently had the opportunity to visit Louise Bourgeois’s studio and home in New York and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. 

It’s Not Real by Karen Black
March 13th – 28th
Opening event Friday, March 13th, 6pm – 8pm
Sullivan Strumpf Sydney
799 Elizabeth Street
Zetland, New South Wales

Recent Art