Katharina Grosse at Mass MoCA

by Jody Lee, July 2011

As tempting as it may be to see Katharina Grosse’s One Floor Up More Highly, now on view at Mass MoCA, as a sensually gratifying installation, it is closer in intent to an exercise in depletion and dismantling. What gets undone in the course of navigating this startling and vigorous work is our own understanding of the divisions between works of art and reality, and any unexamined notions we possess of the autonomy of painting from space.

One Floor Up More Highly is housed in three galleries among Mass MoCA’s architectural complex of vast manufacturing remains. It consists of three main “islands” of material, all of which begin on the floor with softly undulating hills of mounded dirt, boulders of various size and intermittent drip-like patches of flattened, discarded clothing. The dirt, boulders, clothing and some of the adjacent walls are painted in brilliant, mingling streaks of primary blue, red and yellow, as well as green and orange. Resting on the dirt are sharp, thick, elongated shards of brilliant white Styrofoam. Next to the painted dirt, these are shockingly white, rising and twisting sharply according to how each piece is faceted. Some of the shards rise in a perpendicular array from the main floor up to the mezzanine above, others lean against the dirt and verge onto the floor.

The scale of all the elements is masterfully planned to build on the viewer’s relation to the building, whose sheer enormity puts One Floor Up More Highly in the same family of experiences as descrying a landscape or the weather. One ambles slowly around and through the piece, gaining elevation in the mezzanine area and turning back again to absorb its many rounded vistas. The bright color of the dirt and boulders coerces the viewer’s attention abruptly and the sharply linear Styrofoam scatters it laterally away, all within the ethereal and plentiful light that enters the porous space through eighty or more windows.

Grosse plants myriad visual-semantic signposts discouraging us from reading One Floor Up as a discreet work, operating separately from the space surrounding it. There is no privileged latitude within the piece toward which the eye settles, no restful sense of gravity. Thus the gaze is relieved of its obligation to “arrive.” As this process develops, the piece sheds any comfortable recourse to identity as an object, installation or image. The piece asks that we dismantle the routine spatial framing in observing works of art, instead favoring a sensual-spatial-intellectual pursuit that leeches away our sense of where painting belongs. We are left in a slightly elevated zone, more vagrant than we’re used to, whose hallmark seems to be a multi-directional and unlabeled state.

It would be possible to argue that there are more recognizable contexts in which to see One Floor Up More Highly, and that it does in fact distill to an image such as the geology of this or some other planet. But even if a reference to a remote landscape is irrefutably present, the artist employs it for her own ends: to induce a condition where our normal mode of awareness, habitually assuming its own continuity, is exchanged for one where we experience the split between our physical presence there in the installation and a vast reference to remoteness itself. Grosse indicates, dispassionately and without palpably leading her audience, that everything our minds contain, including our physical experience, is equally viable and available, irreconcilable but coextensive. In order to graze this new territory, One Floor Up More Highly performs a series of rich de-calibrations and epistemological depletions regarding space and painting. And as we follow Grosse’s work out in its conceptual and sensual wealth, her assured handling of color, scale and material forces our admission of the contradictory notions and experiences of which we are made.

Katharina Grosse: One Floor Up More Highly
Thru 31 October 2011
Mass MoCA
1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams