With her new work for Sydney Festival, German artist Katharina Grosse has transformed Carriageworks’ monochrome, industrial architecture into a living painting with 8000 metres of folded fabric and a spray gun.
In a highly digital visual culture dominated by the screens of our laptops and smartphones, painting can feel outmoded and static. Then along comes Grosse, who doesn’t just paint onto canvas, but directly onto the spaces of the real world.
The third commission in the Schwartz Carriageworks series, Grosse’s new work is the culmination of a year-long collaboration with a bigger hands-on team tasked with making it all happen. Grosse first visited Carriageworks last February to get a feel for the space and talk with her curators. She came back in December when the fabric was up.
“It looked incredibly beautiful,” she recalls. “I felt like an intruder in my own work.”
She attacked the white draped canvas, which forms a giant, bubbly self-contained room in Carriageworks’ foyer, with acrylic paint dripped and layered in every sunset colour you can think of.
The resulting work, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped, contains something of Jackson Pollock’s splattery action paintings, as well as Mark Rothko’s blurry colour fields, as if the work of both these painters has sprung alive into three dimensions.
Australian audiences have recently witnessed first-hand the output of another innovative German painter, Gerhard Richter, at QAGOMA – bleary portraits and overpainted photos, most of which are presented flat on the wall rather than inhabiting and bending space.
Like Grosse, postwar US artist Sam Gilliam folded, pinned and painted onto unstretched swathes of canvas, though his work was wall-bound.
Grosse is doing something different: blowing up painting to a new, gargantuan scale and putting us tiny humans inside. The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped “creates its own space, [and also] exists within another architectural space,” Grosse explains before we entered the work.
This idea of painting in space, on what Grosse calls an “unruly surface,” takes us off the wall and into immersive territory. What a pleasure it is to be submerged and surrounded by a painting. I overhear a fellow viewer say how much they enjoy being “within the work – it’s a different experience than looking at a work.”
There are little revelations to be found everywhere: points of tension where the fabric wraps tautly around a pillar, hammock-like curves I wish I could nestle into, knotted bunches between awnings – lots of painted spaces and places that could never exist on a 2D surface of a picture frame.
But to explain the work too much would be glib: the point is to experience it, not decipher it.
As Grosse says, she creates “in the moment where colour expands and is the carrier of everything I do, that very moment where your thoughts form, before they flow into verbal forms, to feel and register the environment before the thoughts flock into different boxes.”
That’s a lovely thing for visual art to do – to appeal to that pre-lingual moment of pure colour and experience. With this new work, Grosse has suspended meaning so that we can feel the work on our own terms.
That feeling element also happens physically. The work is more tactile than I expected, more able to be manipulated and moved aside and explored with your hands. My art-going companion Emily notes “the feeling of it under your feet. It’s got all these surprises along the way. I wonder how it will change over time. It will soften as people walk over it.”
She’s right – I wish I had taken my shoes off to feel it underfoot. Emily points to an immense sweep of pleated curves overhead, left unpainted by Grosse, and asks, “What does this mean for her – this white space in her thinking?”
“When you have a space like Carriageworks that’s an architectural gem within this city with a rich history,” Emily said to me after we left Carriageworks, “and then you have this work which is so deeply colourful, that’s what’s exciting because we’re not used to seeing architectural space in this way and colour applied to it.”
“There’s a sense of real openness. It’s not about filling a space. It feels like it’s a work that fills a particular space but in essence could expand forever. It’s something to do with the canvas and the temporariness of this form, you could shape it in endless different forms and spaces, there’s so much potential. You don’t get that with paintings on the wall. They feel finished. This feels unfinished.”
It’s also nice to think about Grosse’s work in the context of a glittering Sydney summer. As the work follows Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s recent immersive, colour-drenched exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the rainbow victory of the marriage equality campaign: this work feels right for now. “It’s a colourful time for our city,” says Emily.
I can’t think of a better moment, or place, for history to deliver painting to the present.
(With thanks to Emily Stewart)