Questions of boundaries and borders echo through Katharina Grosse’s huge painted installations, from the mounds of vibrant soil that consumed indoor benches and gallery walls at the Taipei Biennial in 2006 to her neon colouring of condemned military buildings in Rockaway, New York in 2016.

This Drove my Mother up the Wall, Grosse’s first solo exhibition in London at South London Gallery in Peckham, shows no sign of her spatial experimentation abating. In the installation, the artist’s characteristically colour-laden painting abandons any traditional notion of edge. Crossing the perceptual divide of artwork and viewing space is thrilling, awakening a basic sense of disobedience. When existing within the piece rather than looking at it, exquisite details betray the work’s vast scale, as dense planes of brown and blue give way to veined lines embedded in powdery billows. Up close, layers spill and fold in on themselves—a bizarre paradox of static fluidity.

“Grosse’s spray-painted, site-specific outpours have something external and urgent to them.”

Jutting streaks and violent waves become soft flicks that trace the artist’s movement and memory, climbing around the walls and from floor to ceiling. Blazing restlessly around the gallery’s central exhibition space, Grosse’s work surrounds you. She uses an industrial spray gun, whose jets defy the constraints of any single surface. Magenta and teal clouds bloom across elaborate doorframes and skirting boards, dripping and pooling in corners. Grosse has masked off portions of the space, layering colours heavily over and around stencils before taking them away to leave expanses of stark white. These blank areas are highlighted by the sharp outlines of removed stencils, hinting at the misplaced or forgotten.

Increasing the sensory trip, Grosse performed Tiergarten—her audio work created with long-time friend and musician Stefan Schneider—for the first time in the UK. The performance took place within Grosse’s installation and saw the two artists working across analogue synthesizers and spoken word. Rejecting the term “collaboration”, they prefer to define their interaction as “communicating, contemplating, complementing each other through their instruments and intuitions”, describing the project as “an improvisational conversation of abstract, ambient sounds”. The audio layer opens another entry point to the work, as the colossal plumes begin to map strange sounds.

“It’s not just Grosse’s uneasy framing of emptiness that is troubling, but the relationship of these massive, lonely sections to the bright paint they cut through.”

In the upstairs galleries, Grosse screens two documentaries as part of her exhibition, The Gleaners and I by Agnès Varda and Women Artists: Katharina Grosse by Claudia Müller. Each film presents distinct elements of Grosse’s creative influences and values, providing some welcome context to her architectural revolts. In The Gleaners and I Varda interviews a range of French gleaners, some who collect crops left over from harvesting and others—like Varda herself—who she describes as enacting a kind of artistic gleaning, “you pick ideas, you pick images… and then you make it into a film.” Grosse relates her own method of masking areas of the room to gleaning, noting a “sense of absence” stirred by the exposed space that remains once the stencil is removed. It’s not just Grosse’s uneasy framing of emptiness that is troubling, but the relationship of these massive, lonely sections to the bright paint they cut through.

Women Artists: Katharina Grosse sees Grosse as curator, putting together a fantasy exhibition including work from Georgiana Houghton, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Valie Export and Wangechi Mutu. Kngwarreye, Export and Mutu’s ranging bodies of work fly hard against boundaries imposed by gender, age and cultural identity. All reassert (or invert) notions of thresholds, from spiritual to political. Houghton was a medium who produced a series of abstract watercolours in the late 1800s and wrote that her hand was led by spirits—including those of artists and angels—to create the images. Like Houghton’s ghostly paintings, Grosse’s spray-painted, site-specific outpours have something external and urgent to them. The act of spraying paint is both distancing and a way to extend her hands and mind. She describes it as enabling “the synchronicity of acting and thinking in the most amazing way”, resulting in a seemingly automatic element to her work, the same frenetic quality that can be found in Houghton’s compulsive spirals. The film ends with Grosse considering positions for her selections in the imagined gallery. Her final touch? She fills the space with soil sprayed bone white.

This Drove My Mother up the Wall
Until 3 December at South London Gallery
All images: This Drove My Mother up the Wall, acrylic on wall and floor, South London Gallery, 2017. Photo by Andy Keate.

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