Katharina Grosse is a painter, and while she does create some small-scale works that can hang neatly on a wall, the German artist is known for her massive energetic installations in which paint explodes out from the confines of the canvas. In Grosse’s architectural interventions paint breaches the conventions of the picture plane and sprays across walls, piles up in huge mounds on the floor, and seeps into metres and metres of draped fabric.
“My large-scale, site-responsive works possess a strong expanding energy, as if something very small and intimate is being taken apart in slow motion. There is no singular perspective. My smaller canvases painted in the studio allow one to look at contraction, the cramming-in of as much information as possible onto a small surface. They are about hiding and stacking up, layering the visual elements,” she says. “The difference is between swimming in the sea and in a swimming pool.”
During the Sydney Festival, Australian audiences have the chance to dive right in at Carriageworks. Grosse first visited the venue in early 2017. “I knew immediately that I wanted to take advantage of the theatricality of the situation, the impressive, obsolete yet recycled structure of the buildings on the site, the feel of it being in-the-making,” she recalls. “I was excited to consider using the elaborate rigging structure that runs throughout the building, and the huge skylight is especially appealing to me; its all-revealing unforgivingness.”
In fact, colour is a key concern for Grosse and she is keen to recuperate it from what she sees as a marginalised and gendered position. “Colour has been stigmatised either as being decorative and ‘beautifying’ or as camouflaging the authenticity of materiality,” she explains. “Early on, colour (aka feminine, emotional, inchoate, and therefore ‘unreliable’) was considered subordinate to the line and drawing (masculine, clear, mathematical, and form-giving).” Although some chromophobia may remain, Grosse insists that in the last 120 years the most interesting moves in painting have been centred on colour. As she says, “Colour is atopic and highly independent. It can appear anywhere and everywhere.”
For Grosse, painting is a way of thinking that is not restricted to tight rationality.
“Painting pushes my ability to think in paradoxes to the extreme. I can imagine things at the same time that exclude each other in the process of being materialised. It is not a consecutive string of thoughts, but an illogical, un-causal experience without beginning or end.”
The fact that Grosse embraces contradictions can also be seen in the titles of her works. She often gives her installations names that read like the punch-line of a joke, for example her piece at Carriageworks is called, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped. Many of her recent titles have this sort of very strong narrative bent, yet her works remain resolutely abstract. This may be indicative of the fact that Grosse is aware that even if she wanted to she can’t really dictate how people will respond to her paintings. As she says, “We know from neuroscience that my audience’s brains start to fire in ways that my own did when I made the work. Maybe observers sense their thinking being expanded, freed up, disturbed, or maybe they think of their shopping list. I have no clue!”