Katharina Grosse slips a suggestively gothic impression of life through the backdoor of beauty. The 46-year-old German artist is internationally recognized for spewing garishly-colored acrylic paint from her air gun in a sweeping gesture on any available surface, from walls, floor and ceiling to a bed, piles of soil and now gigantic balloons. Her retinue of colors often includes a saturated magenta, a drippy gold, baby blues and blood reds, hot orange and a phthalo green with a dense emotional range. Applied straight from the can, the tones eventually mix into a soft gradient as Grosse continues to fire her spray gun. Although the colors rarely lose their tart, one expects, and perhaps even searches for, the moment in Grosse’s awfully pleasurable paintings where morbidity seeps and creeps through the surface akin to a carnival’s fleshy underbelly that sullies the overall merriment; it’s this sort of grim cheeriness that gives depth to Grosse’s color-for-color’s-sake novelty.
Chicago audiences have the rare fortune of seeing two concurrent exhibitions of new work by this German Romanticist and thus two very different works of art. “Atoms Inside Balloons” at The Renaissance Society is full of uplift and wonder. Grosse’s trademark hyper-colored spatter paint molests the gallery’s famous collegiate-Gothic interior as well as an installation of a billowing stack of oversized balloons. There is almost a fairytale quality to the piece – it’s sinister, hallucinatory, and somehow appropriate for children. It contains all the structural elements of a Grimm Brothers tale – protagonists (the viewers), a mythic land, a threat, a climax, and an instruction on a new way to see the world – yet it is not clear whether the paint or the balloons or even the architecture itself is the character or the moral or what. All that is clear is that this piece is a set-up, a sort of theatrical stage where abstraction, perhaps even non-objective abstraction (that points to nothing representational or figurative), comes close to perverting the “real” order of the world. If there is such a thing as Abstract Surrealism, this is it.
Grosse’s creative act reveals, like a psychoanalyst or an exorcist, a room’s unconscious processes that are trying to seek an outlet. What does the building remember of its former occupants? What does the building desire? What must be released? It is as if the room was exhaling its ghost.
Glimpsed at the edges of The Renaissance Society installation, a shady figure huddles in the corner and an airy orange sputters around a radiator, dithering near the bottom of a wall. These personalities lurk, and they are uncomfortable. Mainly, one’s attention is pushed upwards by the cosmic balloon mass. On a slanted interior roof a heavy purple hue hovers like a threat. What is to be gained from all these analogies and chains of metaphoric association? We the viewers are invariably Surrealism’s valued objects of transformation; Grosse’s painting, although anything but dim, is our foil.
The aberrations that finger the edges of wondrous joy in The Renaissance Society installation come to the fore in Grosse’s two works at The Suburban in Oak Park. Here, Grosse lets her colors flow unrestrained in a psychosomatic bloodletting. Included in The Suburban installations are domestic objects such as tabletops, upended drawers and panels attached to the walls, all awash in color. To interact with the two small rooms, separated by yard, is as if to engage a domestic dreamscape with Freud on the mind. Family relationships and issues of dwelling are expressed as vivid paint splashes. Here more than at The Renaissance Society does Grosse purge the space’s ghost like an exhumed trauma. The walls, in Grosse’s hands, dissolve as if enhanced by a psychotropic. Like Kenny Scharf’s drug-addled “Closets,” the rooms prompt a mind-expanding session with help from perceptual tricks and associations. “Reality is subject to discussion,” said Grosse in a recent artist talk. Recall: one of LSD’s first uses was as an experimental therapy agent. Similarly, Grosse’s rooms giddily hallucinate themselves into being.
Published in Newcity (June, 2007)