MASS MOCA | THROUGH JANUARY 1, 2012
I had long ago given up on the idea of the Sublime as a possible experiential response to contemporary art. By the Sublime I am referring to that notion defined by Friedrich von Schiller in the late 18th century as:
The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…through the sense of the Sublime, we discover that our state of mind is not necessarily determined by the state of our sensible perceptions, that the laws of nature are not necessarily our own.
I was wrong. One Floor Up More Highly, German painter Katharina Grosse’s current installation at MASS MoCA, possesses this rare and prodigious occurrence in spades.
Grosse self-identifies as a painter; however, her format for the medium’s conveyance can be classified as anything but conventional. Throughout the past decade, her increasingly elaborate installations have continually dissolved the frame of the canvas, typically giving way to urban sprawls of color that merge floor to wall, object to referent, and architecture to amorphous space. Grosse has enacted such signature displays at a number of U.S. institutions, including, most memorably, her contribution to the 2008 New Orleans Biennial, Prospect.1, where she spray painted an abandoned home and its front lot in the 9th Ward in blistering flames of orange, yellow, and red.
For One Floor Up More Highly, Grosse seized full advantage of MASS MoCA’s cavernous mill spaces, producing a body of work on a scale that amounts to one of the artist’s most ambitious to date. The result, a psychedelically charged glacial landscape, is dominated by four landfill-sized mounds of dirt and debris, pierced through at intervals by huge, monolithic shards of Styrofoam “ice.” Using an industrial spray gun in place of a brush (talk about painterly gender reversal), Grosse then douses the naturalistic piles with bands of neon-flecked, even violent, color that splays feverishly across the walls, and gallery floor. Explosions of verdant greens, canary yellows, penetrating violets, and fluorescent cadmiums denote an axiomatic rainbow in extremus—one that can be read equally as high art graffiti or Maya Lin’s “Wave Field” gone viral.
Peppering the mountainous landscape are huge resin boulders and even a bench for visitors to sit on. These and a single, large-scale “painting”—a pigment-blasted concave/convex hybrid wing of sorts, measuring at least 15 feet across and made from surfboard material (glass and fiber reinforced plastic, a favorite support of the artist’s)—form pathways and valleys through which viewers can traverse the bizarre terrain—or rather, be engulfed by it.
In the second gallery space, the theatricality of three dimensions gives way to flat expanse as Grosse’s choice of taped-off areas take over the work’s directional grounding. Flames of emptiness burst through and across the floor, up the walls and out of the windows, projecting unbounded energy onto the quaint and unsuspecting town of North Adams below. It’s an electric juxtaposition—this 19th-century vision conjoined with the present. Indeed, this is one of the more interesting qualities of Grosse’s work—her ability to tap into the moment, to infuse a previously known space with new energy, a new consciousness. This is not Color Field painting; it cannot be reduced to Arte Povera or the earthworks of the mid-20th century. We have no preexisting emotional model in art history for what the artist confronts us with, no way of understanding and digesting its machinations. Rather, such tectonic shifts of color and form propel us through Grosse’s painterly wilderness, almost without consciousness. This is the Sublime experience at its core—destabilizing, shocking, awesome. It is the registering of presence in our guts rather than our intellect.
But this is not to say that a formalist intention is lacking in the painter’s opulent displays. On the contrary, the human element in Grosse’s compositions, registered here by discarded scraps of clothing that have also been bathed in her neon assault, redefines our initial impressions of purely painterly ecstasy. Stuffed into corners of the dirt mounds, wedged in between the stalagmite forms, or haphazardly discarded among gravel and debris, these somatic relics imply a negation of the escapist paradise of Romanticist aspiration. Rather, they point to a post-apocalyptic state where nature might be allowed to reclaim its former vitality, emerging, finally, from the concrete brush of urban civilization.
Additionally, Grosse’s means of creation, waged in a Tyvek suit replete with a respirator and spray gun, dispels the aura of Ab-Ex mythology: the vision of the fastidious painter, alone in his studio, working feverishly on a canvas for days or even weeks on end, deprived of sleep, food, and human contact. Instead, and largely due to the size of her installations, the artist must often work with teams of individuals, curators, and technicians, employing the act of collaboration and even performance as a necessary effort. Once the large-scale structures are in place, the spray gun itself maintains a distancing effect between the artist and her product. In this sense Grosse’s work is not so much about the art historical tradition of “painting” (i.e. brush to canvas in a one to one ratio) as it is about the drama of the creative act itself. I would argue that it is this element that makes the work truly individual—its ability to give voice to the unmoored restlessness that currently defines contemporary painting.
On the upper mezzanine, a second painting—a Styrofoam crest in warm crimsons and royal blues—rests atop another dirt pile of fluorescent chaos. From the vantage point of the balcony ledge, the hard-edged landscape stretches below, in all its vast and abstract glory. Dwarfed by the immense size of installation, visitors move slowly about its massive structures as if testing, questioning their limits of habituated sight. Looking down, I swear I could see the glaciers move.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.