Born Harper Woods, MI, 1995 / BFA, College for Creative Studies; BFA Wayne State University / Lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI
When something living dies, its chemical relationship to this world changes. Scientists use carbon dating, therefore, to assess the age of something that lived long ago, to peer into the distant past. William Charles Black uses carbon to similar ends, exploring its propensity to decay, but also its ability to preserve. This tension between ephemerality and permanence, preservation and destruction, is a thread that weaves through Black’s entire body of work, allowing him to link past to present.
Carbon serves as both a fitting metaphor for Black’s interest in memory and time and his primary medium: charcoal. Carbon Copies (2019-20)is a series of works focusing on domestic objects. Charcoal appears in this series in various ways: as the upper casing on a hollow relief carving, a sooty residue on a burnt object, or the constituent material of the artwork itself.
Dinner Plates (2020), as part of this series, features dozens of plates cast in charcoal and plaster. Black molded and cast them from the ones he used throughout his childhood during meals at his parents’ home. The cast facsimiles are even more delicate than their originals. Many are chipped or cracked. Their fragility gets at the heart of Black’s work, which revolves around quotidian objects that break, fade, and deteriorate with time, but are fixed in memories, most often those shared with family and friends in the home.
The title Carbon Copies, of course, recalls the process by which an exact imprint is made on an underlying sheet of paper while writing or typing. Black’s renderings of furniture in this series are essentially an inversion of this process. First, he carves the outline of a familiar household object into a piece of drywall. This part can be likened to the original document from which a carbon copy is made: the top layer. Then, Black pours a liquid solution—ground charcoal, gum arabic, and water—overtop, filling the indentations made in the carving. As the solution solidifies it cracks, with most of the cracks forming over the outlines of the depicted object. An image appears, the exact copy of the carving beneath it.
In Queen Anne Chairs (2020), Black uses this method to delineate two stacked chairs—one upright, one inverted—and an ottoman leaning against them. The artist discovered the furniture, beloved by his mother, positioned this way in his parents’ basement. Like his own memories of using these chairs, the furniture is stowed away in a dark corner somewhere, gathering dust. With charcoal, repurposed to function as part of an inverted carbon copying process, Black brings these objects back to the surface, along with the memories they carry.
Family and the home are evidently large themes in Black’s work. This is reflected in his use of drywall, which he uses not only in his Carbon Copies series but also as a surface for many of his figurative drawings. The son of a builder/handyman, Black became acquainted with the qualities of the material at a young age. Today, in his artistic practice, drywall serves as a convenient drawing surface and sculptural medium. More importantly, perhaps, it offers a reminder of both times spent helping his father and the material’s practical use in forming the structural units of a home.
Black’s drawings are based on old photographs from scenes in his early childhood. Fittingly, his drawings have a hazy, dream-like quality, which Black achieves through blending only with his hand. At the computer (2020) shows two children—Black and his sister—sitting at a desktop computer. Their faces are smoothed over, with only hints of shadow suggesting features. Yet, the figures are brought into sharp relief, with crisp black outlines and orienting dark shadows behind them. The rest of their surroundings slip into a blurry, low-contrast haze. The drawing perfectly captures the strained feeling of recalling a distant memory that flits in and out of focus.
Black is currently pursuing his master’s degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art’s Sculpture department. There, he is working on a new project using a food-grade, water-soluble charcoal mixture that he molds into household objects, such as a sink, a Ziploc (2021) container, or even an entire bathroom. He plans to expose these sculptures to the outdoors, letting them dissolve as Michigan’s unpredictable weather brings rain and snow. As with all life forms, Black’s new sculptures will deteriorate as time passes. Traces of them, however, will survive: in soil, as disintegrated elements, and in memory, as testaments to their existence.
Julia Pompilius, October 2021