For an artist who creates such fantastically large, other-worldly pieces of work by dangling off cranes in industrial suits armed with spray guns, piling up heaps of dirt and painting them until they resemble sherbet-rainbow landscapes and sawing up gargantuan blocks of styrofoam, it’s strange that more people aren’t aware of Katharine Grosse.
I spoke to her as she had just returned to her studio after installing WUNDERBLOCK, her latest exhibition in Texas’ Nasher Sculpture Centre. She gushed about the hot weather and the surprising friendliness of the incredibly wealthy art community there. “They are enormously engaged in the arts and they have this kind of amazingly positive approach. Whatever you say they’re like: ‘Great! It’s gonna work out! It’s fantastic! It’s amazing!’ and that is kind of cool, it’s like being showered with super-positive atoms all the time.”
We first came across Katharina’s work in 2011 when her show One Floor Up More Highly at MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) was bringing unbridled joy to visitors. She had been given free run of the enormous space of MASS MoCA’s Building 5 and turned it into a whole new world unlike anything many gallery-goers had seen before. She piled tonnes of dirt into the space and spray painted it with acid neon colours before crowning it with enormous, spiked styrofoam sculptures (“I highly suggest to carve into styrofoam – it’s really, really cool”) until the space resembled a mythical lunar landscape around which the public could wander and be transported somewhere else entirely.
Susan Cross, the curator of visual arts at the gallery, oversaw the creation of One Floor Up More Highly (and has worked in the past with artists such as Spencer Finch, Mary Lum and Fransje Killaars among others). “This show had a huge impact on our visitors,” she remembers. “The colour, the texture, the scale were all intense. And people had very strong responses – real excitement, and wonder.”
Susan first encountered Katharina’s installations at a show in New York’s Freidrich Petzel gallery where she had spray painted huge, multi-coloured daubs directly on to the walls, creating the impression that the building was leaking rainbow fluid. Upon seeing it, Susan knew that her site-specific work would be perfect for the cavernous, industrial space of Building 5. “I was initially thrilled by her palette, and by that simple act of painting directly on the wall and the ceiling, ignoring the logic of the space. Her work has an aggressiveness to it as well as some joy and a sense of abandon. All her work has a strong visceral and visual impact, and a thrill to it, though it also reveals many layers. It simultaneously addresses and embraces the tradition that came before her while exploring a new way of looking at things.”
It’s interesting that Susan says Katharina’s work – which could be described as futuristic contemporary installation – “embraces the tradition that came before her.” Despite her ability to stretch the word as far as it will go, Katharina is still a self-pronounced painter. She was a late starter, only really picking up a paintbrush in her early 20s as part of a group of enthusiasts who travelled into the countryside to paint. “That’s how I got somehow hooked. Up to that moment I hadn’t done anything with my hands that would produce images or paintings.”
That trip proved to be a turning point. “I liked sitting out there in the countryside and actually looking at something and then trying to figure out what you see. The space around you is so vast that it’s truly a 360 degree angle that you’re looking at. Buildings reorganise our views so that was a really interesting experience, just to be outside.”
This experience had her hooked, and so she threw herself into the art world. “I studied in a relatively small school in Münster for two or three years then I went to Düsseldorf to the art school. Gerhard Richter and Benjamin Pike would help to teach the photography class while I studied there. This was at a time when every single student was studying the mediums of video and photography while I was painting, so I was very much influenced by their discussions and at some point I did a lot of video installations and photos. Then I decided to go back to painting and start from scratch.”
During a brief stint living in Florence, Katharina was inspired to start utilising architectural space as her canvas.“I got to know a lot about the relationship between painting and architecture because of the fresco painting that is so visible there. That’s how I started to be very intrigued by how a painting could maybe appear in space, other than being on a stretcher. I started to reorganise my whole thinking again about what painting could do.
“My works are not frescoes technically speaking, but at the same time the artists of the Renaissance were very aware of the spatial context; they would always see a painting in relationship to something else that was around them. They would not consider a painting to be just on a blank wall because white walls didn’t exist in those days – the white wall, artistically-speaking, is a relatively recent invention.” Katharina was much more interested in how a painting can become the space, and her studies of frescoes led her to thinking about how architecture and painting can become one entity. Wherever she works, she has to really feel the architecture can house the painting and, in turn, the painting can house the space itself.
Now, when she is invited to see a potential exhibition space, she relies on gut instinct to tell her whether or not it is appropriate for her work. “Ideally I go and see the space in person. When I come into a space I’ll bring something with me that relates to my work at that specific moment. When I do a show somewhere I also want it to give me the chance of developing what I’m doing right now. So it’s partially a feeling that comes from the space but it also comes from what I’m interested in right at that moment. Sometimes I can’t do a show in a space, sometimes I don’t feel like doing it.”
Sometimes the space is right, but the limitations make it impossible for Katharina to take full occupation of it. “It can happen that I think there are too many compromises I would have to make, or sometimes I can’t paint on a surface. If they say ‘Oh, this is a listed wall’ then sometimes I have to tell them that I can’t do the show. It can happen.”
Perhaps that is why her show at MASS MoCA was such a success. Susan was able to give Katharina the freedom she needed to create something utterly spectacular. Mass MoCA is an enormous converted factory that has been transformed into a cluster of 19 galleries with 100,000 sq ft of exhibition space in a 24-acre plot. Building 5 is one of the largest spaces in the compound – almost the size of a football field – and a perfect space to house otherwise impossible, gargantuan, mindbending installations.
In 2004, Cai Guo-Qiang suspended nine cars from the ceiling as if taking flight, with huge rods of light bursting out from each one. In 2007 Jenny Holzer filled the space with giant bean bags and displayed enormous projections of poetry by Wislawa Szymborska. “These large scale projects often invite an intense back and forth with the artists as there are usually many site visits, as well as many phone calls and emails,” Susan says. “It is a large, eccentric space and our budget is small, so the artists have a real challenge as well as a wonderful opportunity to take it on.”
Susan watched as Katharina took on that challenge in an extraordinary way. “She worked with a large crew here – our installation and fabrication team and added members we hired for the show. We also had art students and interns volunteering and a crew from a landscaping company helping move the soil. The gallery became a giant studio – first with all these collaborators and then in the last two weeks, when it all quietened down, Katharina was left alone to paint.
“While the work is planned out very meticulously, when she paints she is responding to the site, the space, the time. It is building on all the other works she has made but also very in the moment, so the process demands a great deal of focus and concentration.”
Katharina’s team brought in the required materials – plain blocks of styrofoam, old clothes and masses of dirt – and she set about, alone, morphing them into the magnificent landscape that was One Floor Up More Highly. The dirt that she uses in many of her pieces makes her work all the more magical. So what’s so good about it?
“The dirt came about after I’d been doing a couple of shows using objects, for example a bookshelf or a bed or small items such as coins. All these different objects referred to all the different, elementary areas of our lives like money and knowledge, sleeping and sexuality. They were all objects which you could name and you could count. I felt that I could have something even more elementary, that is uncountable, which is just a mask that I can sculpt and form, and that’s how I started to use the soil.
“I also loved the ambiguity that soil takes on as you paint it because it can look like very coarse pigment, but it can also look like it’s glowing from inside. The way colour transforms what we know is dirt into something that we can actually imagine what it might be is really fascinating.”
Aside from the appeal of the bland and infinite nature of soil, part of Katharina’s love for heaping it into towering piles is derived from her childhood trips to the mountains. She grew up in a flat, industrial area of Germany dominated by coal and steel mines. “My parents took us to the Alps for a long stretch every summer, so from the age of two until about 16 I’d go mountain climbing. I loved it.”
That sense of feeling tiny when surrounded by mountains – and their sheer epic force – is what Katharina wants the viewer to feel when looking at her creations. She wants us to tap into our love of a sense of scale. She often scatters items of clothing around her installations and paints on them too. “I like to use them because they so clearly refer to the size of your own body because very often I use things that shift scale. Sometimes you see a really big balloon and you think ‘Oh gosh maybe I’m small’ but then you see a smaller painting and you regain the feeling of the size of your body again.” Scale is something that seems to be constantly on her mind – she goes on holiday once a year to New Zealand and surfs (despite a mild phobia of the ocean) just to gain a bit of perspective.
As well as finding ways to feel smaller, Katharina is constantly searching for new ways to elongate her body, be that in the suits she paints in, a bucket she stands on to reach a corner of a room, or the cranes she dangles off to spray paint her enormous installations.“If I stand on a ladder I am even larger and then if I am on a crane I am turning into a little bit like a giant. It’s about shifting the human
being scale you’re in. If you’re human being scale, you’re sitting on your desk on your chair. If you go one step up you go on a ladder, if you go one step up again you go on a crane. Up and up. That’s just how it works.”
It turns out Katharina is about to grow even bigger, as she has just been asked to create something particularly exciting in Philadelphia. “They have a very big mural arts tradition and they wanted to re-understand what they are doing so they invited me to do a project. We couldn’t find an interesting venue so we ended up proposing that I would paint some parts of the landscape that is running alongside the train tracks. And that’s what I’m going to do.
“I don’t think I am going to be painting it myself so I have to organise people to do it. The crane and all of these things are all about making myself somehow bigger, to extend and amplify the body in a sense. So now I need multiple bodies to do that work.” Watch this space.