Katharina Grosse Sticks to her Guns

Katharina Grosse has a gun and she’s not afraid to use it. Moving beyond canvases and onto walls, floors, mounds of earth, and building facades, the Berlin-based artist splatters her surroundings with violent, vibrant color like an American Psycho-esque murder scene. She may not actually kill anybody in the process, but she massacres the notion that one must think within the confines of a picture frame.

Grosse has exhibited all over the world from Paris’s Palais de Tokyo to North Adams’ Mass MOCA to Brisbane’s GoMA, and currently has a show at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf. She’s also a respected academic, having taught at Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee for over a decade and currently lecturing at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.

We recently met with the artist at her tailor-made Bauhaus-style Berlin studio.

EMILY WASIK: When did you first realize you wanted to become a painter?

KATHARINA GROSSE: As a child, I would play a game with myself where before I got up, I had to first erase the shadows on the wall. I invented an invisible paintbrush to paint over the shadows of the windowsill or the lamp or whatever was there. It became like an obsession. For me, looking at the world has always been connected to doing something in it, on it, or with it at the same time. Painting facilitates the synchronicity of acting and thinking in the most amazing way because there’s no transmitter between the tools and me.

A painting is simply a screen between the producer and the spectator where we can both look at the thought processes residing on the screen from different angles and points in time. It enables me to look at the residue of my thinking.

WASIK: You’ve said that when you’re painting, you are removed from the act. Where are you mentally transported to while painting?

GROSSE: Concentration doesn’t necessarily mean I’m steering towards one specific point. Rather, it’s a sort of clarity combined with openness, like being there and not being there at the same time. It’s a total paradox. Like imagining one thing and materializing something completely different simultaneously. A little bit like feeling hot and cold at the same time. Or while repairing your motorbike, imagining yourself doing five somersaults in the air wearing an orange silk cape. It’s astonishing to see how many things can happen at the same time even though they seem to exclude one another. Once you disconnect their relationship from causal reasoning, an infinite fabric of possibilities opens up.

WASIK: What is it about this perception of time being evaluated differently through painting that you find so fascinating?

GROSSE: With painting, you can perceive everything on the canvas at the same time. Movements that have been painted first and last are both simultaneously present on the image field. There is no linear or causal hierarchy of activities in a painting. In that respect, painting is very anarchic and anti-narrative. To follow this concept of time, it requires a mind that is agile and ready to give up an adopted point of view at any moment for the next potential constellation or reading. Everything can become anything at any minute.

WASIK: What fuels you at the moment?

GROSSE: Lately, I really enjoy situations where I sit very still and so much happens around me at a rapid speed. I am fascinated by sound waves generated by oscillators. To me, they feel like a navigation system for the air or for invisible space. I love letting sounds oscillate—being shaped, becoming irregular and then sending them like coded messages to others. I also like to be tossed about by the water when surfing and to feel the energy between the water and the sand. It is such an amazing feeling to swim through swirling underwater sandstorms while the water shapes the land.

WASIK: Why did you begin using an industrial spray gun as your artistic weapon of choice?

GROSSE: I use all sorts of tools, from my hands to my fingers to tiny brushes to rough household bristle brushes or rollers. I like to get in direct contact with the surface. With the spray gun, it is in the air, off the surface, loose. It shoots paint through the air with air like a 3D paint machine body-wired to my brain. The spray gun got my attention exactly at the time when I wanted to begin painting on multi-dimensional surfaces. The paint supply of the loaded gun is incredibly generous and the air pressure amplifies your reach and accelerates your movements. This means I can make more happen in less time. It really is like a synthetic organ that can touch and encompass space and shrink distances. The infinite line. The expanding body. It allows me to approach situations with enormous thrust and positive aggression.

WASIK: What drew you to leave the canvas and move onto the space around you—onto walls, floors and outdoor landscapes?

GROSSE: Everybody asks this as if it is a taboo to move further than the designated area of the canvas. That says so much about our thinking in strict categories, doesn’t it? In a studio, it’s very normal to sketch on the floor, the wall, a chair or a torn piece of cardboard. It was a very natural move for me. Maybe I didn’t even realize that I began doing it in the first place. I started to observe more closely how my painting behaves differently under changing conditions. Then I started to be intrigued by how color can cause extremely powerful changes to its surroundings.

WASIK: Have you found that different places have different reactions to your work?

GROSSE: Definitely, but I probably know more about my responses to different places than the reactions of other people. In Japan, though, someone once asked me if the relation of my wall painting to the walls was ironic. Nobody has ever asked me a question like that before! I thought it was such an interesting and intelligent remark, because Japanese people are so far away from being “ironic.” They can be very funny but irony is not usually part of their humor, so the concept of “irony” that a Japanese person would have probably has a completely different meaning than it would for a European like myself.

WASIK: When you say you know more about your responses to different places, which parts of the world have had a particularly off-the wall impact on you?

GROSSE: The team constellations at each gallery or museum are very different and therefore the stimulation when working is very different. I’ve arrived at museums where I thought that everything would be prepared and it wasn’t. The team just had a pile of plastic sheets on the floor and I thought, “How on earth are they going to make all this into a spray tent?” but they improvised and got in done in two hours. I was totally surprised. Then I go to somewhere like Switzerland where is everything is always so well prepared, but sometimes so much so that I feel a little bit incarcerated at times! Their love and dedication to make even bus stops or trashcans beautiful makes you think, “Wow, this culture is so obsessed with making everything beautiful”

WASIK: How has living and working in a city like Berlin, with such a unique visual aesthetic, colorful underbelly, and tragic history, influenced your art?

GROSSE: To be honest, often I can disappear in the studio for months at a time where I hardly see anyone at all. When painting, my relationship with the city is not a social one, but rather a mental one. My social character disconnects from my surroundings, but on a mental level I fuse with the city, its colors, my tools, the sound oscillator, my friends. Everything starts to vibrate and resonate. Then the world is more like an ever-changing fluid.