St. Gallen

Katharina Grosse

Kunstmuseum St. Gallen

Katharina Grosse’s presentation in St. Gallen was one element of a four-part exhibition in 2002–2003, realized in different forms at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; the Lenbachhaus Munich; and the Kunsthalle zu Kiel. At the Ikon she used the dominant nineteenth-century iron beams to dramatize the three-dimensionality of her energetic abstract paintings, applied directly to the gallery walls. In St. Gallen she responded to the museum’s classical Central European architecture by using color to pull the decorative plaster moldings and the perfectly proportioned door frames into the rest of the space, creating vistas between rooms. She played off their real sculptural quality with a virtual plasticity she created with layers of color, veils of thinly applied paint shifting into surfaces sprayed so vigorously that the paint dripped down, the pure substance of the material interrupting the temptation to read the work as a landscape. At times the paint appeared to be seeping through from behind, always with the possibility of infinite expansion, encroaching into normally unnoticed areas of the building. Grosse integrated the architectural details within her overall mark-making process, using the moldings to create an interlude between simpler blocks of color above and more complex combinations of colors and painting techniques below. But the relationship between the specifics of the space and the internal logic of the artist’s independent sequence of marks remained fluid: Grosse does not so much produce a work for a particular place as respond to a place’s surfaces by inscribing her movements on it.

Grosse’s work is grounded in an understanding of color. Like Matisse, she is concerned with the placement of each color, its emotional register, the role it will play in the work as a whole, and the effect it will have on the colors near it. Above all she is willing to risk color—to employ her painterly intelligence to establish a working plan but then respond intuitively to the emerging characteristics of the paint in relationship to the space. Comparisons with graffiti artists inevitably come to mind thanks to the suggestion of handwriting in the fluid sprayed lines as well as the gestural swaths of color that, like the most compelling graffiti, hold in precarious balance the gauche and the unnervingly seductive. A less obvious but more profound affinity is with the baroque, not only in Grosse’s over-the-top combinations—fluorescent and metallic paints or the layering of gold on pink, for example—but also the inhuman scale and positioning of the paintings that focus concentration on detail. From a distance Grosse’s work approaches the fleeting, intangible quality of video; close up, it gives the impression of skin, with the flaws and idiosyncrasies that bring it to life.

One of the main differences between this iteration and the version at the Ikon was the inclusion in St. Gallen of a significant number of self-contained works on aluminum or canvas. In conjunction with the wall paintings they emphasized the virtuosity of her techniques—one free-flowing line depicting dimension; a sublime curtain of gold; the light created by touches of metallic paint. Ultimately, though, the smaller works allowed a less tangible identification with Grosse’s performative movements, struggling to live up to the richness and generosity of the wall paintings.

Felicity Lunn