BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 31 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 8

Off The Wall

Katharina Grosse pushes painting towards architecture and the way we navigate spaces

BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 31 JAN 13

Atoms inside Balloons 2007, installation view, acrylic on wall and floor and latex balloons, (courtesy: The Renaissance Society, Chicago)

The town of Vara in Western Sweden, an hour and a half from Gothenburg, is rather unexceptional. But if you arrive there by bus or train your first impression will be astonishment. Unlike the town’s other non-descript blocky buildings with their smoothly plastered frontage and red tiled roofs, the building which houses the bus terminal and railway station is bright electric blue and a number of multi-coloured curving tube-like shapes several metres long appear to be crawling across the roof.

This almost hallucinogenic vision was brought to the Vara Resecentrum (Vara Travel Centre) by the German artist Katharina Grosse and inaugurated on 26 May 2012. Its title The Blue Orange is a clue to the thought processes that lead the artist to paint the entire building blue. If you paint an orange blue, would you still perceive it as an orange? Can these two identities remain cohesive or do they preclude each other? Similarly, can a serious municipal building painted this blue-screen shade maintain its civic function in the face of its playful exterior? Can two such apparently contradictory aspects coexist or does one necessarily supercede the other?

The Blue Orange, 2012, acrylic on fibreglass and enhanced plastic (photograph: Staffan Sävenfjord)

Contradiction and simultaneity are key aspects in Grosse’s work which uses colour as raw material. Though she is essentially a painter (she has been teaching painting at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf since 2010), her approach does not rely on the usual tools of paintbrush and canvas. Since the early 2000s, Grosse has used a spray gun instead of a brush as her primary means of applying paint to ground. And, though she maintains a studio practice of making discrete paintings on canvas, she began around this time to substitute architecture itself for canvas or paper, using this as her surrogate support. The sprayed paint particles cleave to interior or exterior surfaces – walls, floors, ceilings, windows, doors – and other objects they meet on their trajectory through space, doing away with the canvas as conventional middle-man between the artist’s gesture and the surrounding environment. The ontological limits of one thing and the next are subsumed in washes of colour which propose a new cohesive order – an order that has nothing to do with figure and ground, the laws of perspective or relative scale, but one that is governed by imagination and composed by the roving eye and the mobile body.

Grosse’s work is like a mapping of territory on a one-to-one scale. As she explains, it is not about reality, it is reality. It is not an illusion, it is illusion.1 Just as the Vara Resecentrum is a station that at the same time appears as something decidedly different, so Grosse uses paint as a means to suggest something much broader and more tangible, perhaps, than preconceived notions of painting permit: reality itself. Not as something singular or graspable, but something complex, various, constantly mutating and defined by contradictory simultaneities.

They Had Taken Things Along To Eat Together, 2012, installation view, mixed media, (courtesy: Johann König, Berlin)

Grosse’s solo exhibition in 2012 at Johann König in Berlin (where she has lived since 2000, holding the post of Professor of Painting at the Kunsthochschule in Berlin-Weissensee from 2000 to 2010), articulated this notion of simultaneity in physical, literal and narrative terms. Firstly on a visceral level: the rowdy explosion of colour that greeted the eye on entering the gallery’s main room both attracted and repelled – a splash of green, yellow and turquoise on the floor enticed the viewer in, followed by a vulgar clash of unmodulated colour further on. Two shards of carved Styrofoam, each several metres long, were propped up on a large circular carpet and likewise subjected to a violent attack of colour. Following the circumference of the carpet, you discovered a Modernist grey wool sofa concealed behind one of the shards, itself partially soiled with paint. This discovery flipped the viewer’s experience away from the non-representational into the realms of the familiar. With this banal arrangement of sofa and carpet, the abstract suddenly became domestic, the non-referential was attached to a recognizable situation, and the viewer was drawn into dynamic participation.

The implication of the body becomes unavoidable here as the installation revealed itself gradually through the visitor’s movements in space. Initially it is Grosse’s movements that are traced by the spray of colour whose particles fix the trajectory of her path. But once the installation is complete, the onus shifts onto the viewer who retraces the artist’s movements, now pictured in the overlapping swathes and bursts of colour that remain. Though consciously staged and performing a controlled unravelling of a phenomenological plot, Grosse’s installations do not intend to replace existing reality, but rather serve to highlight it, declaring its presence with a riotous fanfare (much as the blue dip of Vara Resecentrum did.)

Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas

The theatricality of Grosse’s work – a stealthily performed hyperbole – is crucial to her proposition about the nature of reality as articulated through art. This is not a James Turrell-like experience demanding total psychic immersion. In the installation at Johann König, Grosse reminded us of the artificiality of her intervention – the orangeness of the blue-painted-orange, if you like – by leaving areas unpainted. Sharply delineated outlines leave blank imprints on the floor and walls that suggest some rectangular object that was there and has since been removed. Were they canvases perhaps, like the two works hanging on the gallery walls amongst the mute cacophony of this instal­lation? There is often something of the whodunnit about Grosse’s works. They are a mind-fuck as well as a pas de deux.

Grosse’s take on reality – and on painting – proposes a vision where the effects of photography on reality have been undone. American film-theorist and art historian Kaja Silverman discusses the dominating effect that photography has on perception in The Threshold of the Visible World. The world is perceived as ‘image-like’ but it is ‘not that literal photographs block our access to objects and landscapes, but that when we look at those things it is more often than not through an imaginary viewfinder.’2 Grosse’s primarily physical activity is like a territorial stalking which reconnects a body’s movements with the physical reality of the world, so that it is no longer image-like and rigid, but rather complex, changing, dynamic and oppositional to the stasis of photography.

The home of collector Erika Hoffmann is an elegant Berlin townhouse, the living room carpeted in pale grey with Barcelona chairs upholstered in toffee-coloured leather arranged before a modern fireplace. The walls above the fireplace and perpendicular to it have been tagged with Grosse’s signature swaths of primary colours (though none touch the furniture here). Again, sections have been left blank, clean white edges disturbed only by the casual trespass of coloured drips, and a canvas by Grosse hangs on the wall in one of these voids, off-centre above the fireplace. While the void ostensibly frames the painting, it also asks questions about time and action – what was there before in those now empty rectangles on the walls of the collector’s home? The title of the work, Sie trocknen ihre Knie mit einem Kissen (They dry their knees with a cushion, 2012), is an amputated stage direction that has much the same effect as the ambiguous voids themselves. It opens up another undefined space for an action which is anonymous, incomplete, out of context and thus incomprehensible. Grosse’s recent adoption of such stage directions as titles for her works not only emphasise their theatrical and performative nature, but also populate them with unknown, invisible protagonists. Are we in fact their stand-ins? What we see, these details imply, is a mere fraction of all that there is.

Untitled, 2006, mixed media, (courtesy: Taipei Biennial, Taipei Fine Arts Museum)

Although the installations are central to Grosse’s practice and expanded notion of painting, she never gave up the parallel studio-based practice of painting on canvas she began while at the art academy in Düsseldorf from 1982 to 1990. On rectangles of primed canvas pinned to the wall of her Berlin studio Grosse performs what she calls ‘blind painting.’3 An initial basic structure, of horizontal brush strokes as wide as a hand, for instance, is partially covered with stencils of fabric cut into irregular curving, perforated shapes, the surface is sprayed or painted with repetitive gestures, then the stencils are removed and the process repeated. An intense battle of colour, form and mark-making occurs as previous incarnations are masked over and memory is obliterated, resulting in wildly decentred, dynamic works with multiple layers, wayward drips and constant changes of direction. It is hard to locate action, centre or composition amongst the paintings’ fragments, voids and replacements, but these violent shuddering images hold together nevertheless. The tears in the apparently unified field of vision that Grosse stages in her installations, through carefully placed voids and breaks, occur on a micro-scale in the works on canvas. Each surface is riven with glimpses of other time-frames, possibilities and overlapping choices. They picture the chaos of simultaneity.

In a separate studio devoted to three-dimensional works, Grosse carves huge blocks of Styrofoam (often several metres long, worked on together with a team of sculptors) into complex geologies, like meteoric pieces of shrapnel, and then spray-paints them in her signature clashing colours. She takes one colour at a time and traces arcs across the crystalline surface, covering the body of the sculpture in layers and layers, more and more colours until the original form must fight to assert itself beneath an elaborate coat of many vibrant shades. These sculptures – as well as the individual canvases – rarely appear on their own but are more often integrated into Grosse’s installations. As props, perhaps, or players? The Styrofoam sculptures are just the latest of various elements which have appeared in the installations in the past: a fully-made bed, shelves full of books, heaps of clothing or huge Styrofoam balls and egg shapes. In 2005 Grosse placed a pile of earth beside two paintings (in the exhibition raumfürraum at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf/Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen) a displacement of raw nature into the institutional setting that continued in further installations with landslide-like drifts of earth, or piles of rocks.The viewer is constantly challenged by ambiguous narrative associations these additions bring with them, as signs of the everyday or the alien, that suggest a meaning beyond the phenomenological. These three-dimensional supplements outmaneouvre painting as solitary medium and align Grosse’s work suddenly with sculpture, with the recent tradition of installation, with Land Art or Earthworks, as much if not more than Abstract Expressionism or colour field painting.

This Is No Dogshit, 2007, installation view, (courtesy: Franchise Foundation Leeuwarden)

For her latest show Two Younger Women Come In and Pull Out A Table at the Museum De Pont in Tilburg, Netherlands (which runs until 9 June), a landscape of synthetic boulders with smooth sculpted contours is followed in the next room by a mass of giant latex balloons suspended from the ceiling and sprayed all over, which seem to simulate the molecular form of the sprayed paint particles in macro scale. In the following rooms, Grosse is exhibiting works on canvas alone, allowing them this time to relate simply to each other rather than integrating them into the installations’ broader context.

Grosse’s approach to painting, and to reality, is a testing of limits, or perhaps rather, of limitlessness. ‘I have the experience that you can’t really separate things so well’, Grosse told me when I met her in her Berlin studio. ‘When I look out of the window I can’t see the chair, the benches or the trees as single units. I see one thing, one big mesh, and that’s maybe also why I’m so interested in the field of painting, a field that does not operate with naming things, it is pre-lingual in a sense.’4 Grosse’s approach to paint, surface, volume, objects, space and movement is one of multi-dimensionality and, most crucially, interconnection. ‘There is no getting outside of the unfathomable totality of which we are a part,’ writes Silverman about finitude, ‘not only is it spatially unbounded, but it also extends backward and forward in time. Most of us, though, are mentally estranged from this dimension of our Being.’5 Grosse uses colour to articulate this dimension, interposing colour as a visible screen between us and the totality we are part of.

1 See Katharina Grosse interviewed by Ati Maier, Bomb 115, Spring 2011,
2 Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World, Routledge, London and New York, 1996, p.197
3 Ulrich Wilmes, Deep Fields in Katharina Grosse, Eat Child Eat, Distanz Verlag, Berlin, 2011, p.91
4 Author in conversation with the artist, May 2012
5 Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009, p.28

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.