The sky is falling. Bubbles, heavy with pigment, descend from the rafters and settle into an expansive yet cluttered composition, a field of polychrome pathways and possibilities. These sixty-eight technicolor spheres, some more than four meters in diameter, disrupt your sense of scale. Are you a giant witness to some rare celestial phenomenon, some interplanetary cluster? Or are you miniature, a Lilliputian lost in an explosion of fluorescent birthday party balloons? Your wanderings uncover a rack of clothing, soiled with broad sprays of paint: a sinister parenthesis hidden within this vibrant tableau. The balloon-scape comes to ground.
This ethereal and occasionally garish landscape, cosmic vista meets New Year’s Eve, is the latest monumental installation from Katharina Grosse and the centerpiece of her current exhibition at De Pont in Tilburg. The German painter is known for her exuberant use of color and an unrestrained approach to her medium. She shifts paint from canvas onto walls, objects, architecture, and into space more generally – into, as some have astutely pointed out, “the expanded field”. The De Pont exhibition, Two Younger Women Come In and Pull Out a Table, comprises the balloon mega-installation of the same name, two sculptures, and twelve enormous paintings on canvas.
It is impossible to look at – or be present within, as the case might be – Grosse’s work without pondering its creation. Only a very lazy viewer could observe the whole and fail to begin organizing swathes of color, mentally separating layers of paint. Traces of action, rainbow residues marking the passage of time and movement, punctuate Grosse’s works, those on canvas and in the expanded field alike.
Our ability to read these indices of trajectory and time is an outcome of Grosse’s technique. Employing a spray gun and working intuitively on site, Grosse responds to and builds upon her own painterly decisions. Her use of spray gun means colors aren’t blended, but applied in fully saturated units. Mixing is typically achieved through the layering of solid hues, and this use of raw, undiluted color is one of the work’s most salient features.
Katharina Grosse, Dirt, 2013, acrylic, dirt on styrofoam and Untitled, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 240 x 388 cm; Courtesy Galerie Nächst St. Stephan/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna, © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013; photo Peter Cox.
This color and technique combination creates a sense of immediacy and presence evocative of both graffiti and action painting. Though action painters readily come to mind, it’s never the “hand of the artist” we see in Grosse’s work, for her apparatus – not to mention protective suit and facemask – keeps her at a distance from its surface. We can calculate her gestures, angles, and positions, but we can’t find a fingerprint.
In her oversized paintings (one is so tall it leans at an angle against the wall to fit in the space), time is collapsed into the present and we view every decision the artist made at once. The canvases encompass built up layers formed from masks, stencils, spray paint, and sometimes dirt. They appear to have windows, alternate dimensions, ruptures, and puddles that distort positive and negative space (judgmental distinctions one suspects might irritate the artist). If it’s even possible to pick apart Grosse’s process we must become archaeologists or geologists, excavating the stratified layers of the visible present to work out the past.
Grosse’s sculptures and installations, on the other hand, take us more on a journey through the recent present where we play forensic analyst rather than geologist. Whodunnit? Grosse, in the gallery, with the paint gun, it turns out. We move through space, in-on-around the paint in order to make sense of the work. As our eyes follow a spray of red from one balloon to the next, then onto the wall, we follow the movement Grosse’s paint gun must have taken, its shifting focal length reflected in the spray’s saturation. The far side of the balloon is untouched by this painterly gesture and the painted space becomes unhinged from the objects’ cohesive surfaces.
Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 522 cm and Untitled, 2008, acrylic and soil on canvas, 390 x 796 cm; Courtesy Galerie Johann König, Berlin © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013; photo Peter Cox.
This is the crux of Grosse’s practice. Her painting is not on the wall, the coatrack, or the bookshelf, for her very act of painting these things has de-objectified them. Grosse is doing some of the most interesting and refreshing painting-about-painting around, as her practice not only liberates paint, but also the structures on which it is applied. Illusions and allegories fall away. Paint, plastic and suggestive as it is, is paint. As the artist said in a 2011 interview: “There are no limits to painting ... What appears on the image field is not subordinate to existing reality. It constitutes that reality.”
(Image on top: Katharina Grosse, Two Younger Women Come In And Pull Out A Table, 2013, acrylic on latex and pvc, courtesy and © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013; and Untitled, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 393 x 900 cm, courtesy Galerie Nächst St. Stephan/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna/ Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich/ Galerie Mark Müller, Zurich, © Katharina Grosse and VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2013; photo Peter Cox.)