Katharina Grosse

February 2, 2018
Katharina Grosse at Carriageworks
Katharina Grosse at Carriageworks

There’s a certain Guinness-Book-of-Records quality about Katharina Grosse’s installation at Carriageworks. On opening night everyone kept asking: “Is this the biggest painting in the world? Is this the biggest painting ever made in Australia?”, and so on. My short answer was: “I don’t know, but I’ve never seen a bigger painting anywhere.”

A quick Internet search reveals that in 2006 a Swedish artist called David Aberg unveiled a painting of 26,213 square metres, which features a cartoonish woman and a peace sign. An Australian artist called Ando, claims to have painted a desert landscape of 12,000 metres.

Grosse’s monster canvas at Carriageworks is said to be more than 8,000 square metres, which is respectable, but not record-breaking. The important question is: “Does it matter?” Size was obviously a major consideration for Aberg and Ando, but one suspects Grosse doesn’t give a damn. Her work, which goes by the offbeat title, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped, wasn’t made to break records. It’s a piece tailored to the dimensions of an exhibition space that is so cavernous it requires an artist prepared to work on a grand scale.

It also requires a sponsor with deep pockets, willing to fund such an ambitious enterprise. Anna Schwartz, who seems to have decided to be an art dealer in Melbourne and an art patron in Sydney, came up with the cash, as part of her ongoing relationship with Carriageworks – an arrangement that has previously brought us exhibitions by artists such as El Anatsui and Francesco Clemente.

Grosse (b.1961) has the perfect pedigree for a leading German contemporary artist, being a graduate from the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, the school associated with the biggest names in German avant-garde art – notably Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer. There are few women on the list of famous teachers and alumni, but Grosse is helping to right the balance as she is now a professor at the same Academy.

Düsseldorf has a reputation for encouraging radical, experimental work, and for Grosse every piece is an experiment. Dedicated to painting in an age of rampant conceptualism, she has tried out different types of brush, different kinds of paint and means of application. She is an abstract painter who uses colour in a free and adventurous manner, allowing a work to evolve in the form of a dialogue. One colour leads to another in an unpredictable fashion, although one assumes the artist follows her own internal logic.

For Grosse the big leap came when she decided to take the painting off the canvas, letting it spread across the walls and other surroundings. She exhibited pieces in this vein during the 11th Biennale of Sydney in 1998: a dark green patch on adjoining walls at Walsh Bay, and a corridor at the Art Gallery of NSW in fiery shades red and orange. The works that followed would get larger and more gestural, employing a greater range of colours.

While a large painting on a flat wall might be called a mural, Grosse was aiming for more complete freedom of expression. Soon she had moved beyond the wall in the same way that she had transcended the the canvas. Over the past decade she has created a series of large-scale works, both indoors and outdoors. In 2012 she showed mountains of coloured soil at Mass MoCA, Massachusetts, and allowed the colours to bleed onto walls, floors and windows. In Brooklyn she placed brightly coloured sculptural fragments among a group of trees. In Graz, Düsseldorf and then Venice she created ensembles of folded fabric, soil and rubble, all sprayed over with vibrant colour.

Katharina Grosse at Carriageworks

Katharina Grosse at Carriageworks

Most recently, in 2016, she took a ruined building on the beach at Fort Tilden, Queens, covering it in bands of red and white that spilled onto the sand. Last year she spread the same colour scheme across a wedge of coastline in the Danish city of Aarhus.

The piece at Carriageworks extends Grosse’s experiments with ‘folded space’. First the canvas was stitched together and installed by a team of assistants, creating a massive enclosure. The artist worked for ten days, clad in protective clothing, using a spray gun. She painted over the folded canvas from within, covering walls and floor. The ultimate effect is disorienting: it feels as if we are standing within the painting, or at least within a space that generates a different sense of depth and volume.

Colour is Grosse’s overwhelming preoccupation, or rather the way that perceptions of colour transform space. Some colours are cool, some are hot. Some appear to recede from the eye, others push forward. As in music, where a note such as B Minor is accepted as melancholy and D major as triumphant, we habitually associate a deep blue with introspection and a bright red with action.

There is a vast literature on the relationship between colour and music so I won’t venture too far down that path, beyond noting that Grosse’s piece at Carriageworks might be seen as a structured improvisation comparable to the work of a jazz musician such as Ornette Coleman who might play without a composition, working largely from intuition, a simple strategy, and the experience gleaned from previous performances.

Katharina Grosse at Carriageworks (floor detail)

Katharina Grosse at Carriageworks (floor detail)

It’s pointless to ask about the meaning or content of Grosse’s work because what you see is what you get: a way of carving up space through the rhythmic application of colours on expanses of draped, rumpled fabric. It might be called formalistic or decorative, although it feels too unruly for both these terms. She hasn’t used colours in harmonious arrangements but in a more clashing, confrontational manner. A square metre of canvas taken at random might contain shades of blue, green, orange, purple, white, yellow. To continue the musical metaphor, the effect is one of dissonance.

As we are all habituated to see the world in terms of pattern recognition we stand within Grosse’s installation searching for a path through the tangled undergrowth of colour. Without even thinking about it we chart relationships, complementarities and contrasts, looking for order in her anarchistic, multidimensional application of paint. Within the enclosed world of the canvas we become aware of a battle being waged between the jagged, unruly energy of the work itself and the innate conservatism of our mental processes.

Katharina Grosse: The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped
Carriageworks, 6 January – 8 April, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February, 2018