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Walk into a Painting’s Colorscape

Installation view, "Katharina Grosse: WUNDERBLOCK" at the Nasher Sculpture Center (all photos courtesy the Nasher Sculpture Center)
Installation view, “Katharina Grosse: WUNDERBLOCK” at the Nasher Sculpture Center (all photos courtesy the Nasher Sculpture Center)

DALLAS — It was a normal day in downtown Dallas in June. The heat and humidity were bearing down on me with intense aggression, the traffic on Harry Hines Boulevard was jammed as usual, and glare beaming off of Museum Tower almost blinded me as I made my way to the arts district. Destination? The Nasher Sculpture Center, to see the installation by Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse. WUNDERBLOCK, which opened June 1 and runs until September, features site-specific works by the artist that blur the lines between painting, sculpture, and installation.

Grosse, who began her career with paint, has evolved to create works sculpted out of laminated Styrofoam, which she then douses in a garish and often discordant array of colors. The idea to bring her to the Nasher first came from Director Jeremy Strick (formerly of LA MOCA), Catherine Craft, the adjunct assistant curator for research and exhibitions, told Hyperallergic. Once Grosse agreed, she was given a great deal of freedom, allowing her to develop her vision for the exhibition without much input from the curatorial team. “Basically, the artist had complete freedom,” Craft says. “She did present her concepts to us, and we were very happy that she proposed doing such distinctive works in different areas of the museum.”

Katharina Grosse, "Wunderblock" (2013), acrylic on glass-fiber reinforced plastic, 4 parts, approximately 169 ¼ x 102 3/8 x 803 1/8 in (courtesy of Galerie nächst St. Stephan/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna, © Katharina Grosse, photo by Kevin Todora) (click to enlarge)
Katharina Grosse, “Wunderblock” (2013), acrylic on glass-fiber reinforced plastic, 4 parts, approx 169 1/4 x 102 3/8 x 803 1/8 in (courtesy of Galerie nächst St. Stephan/Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna, © Katharina Grosse, photo by Kevin Todora) (click to enlarge)

According to Craft, WUNDERBLOCK “presents hybridity as a continuum, rather than a stark choice between one type of work and another, creating an impression of freedom, of possibility.” These notions are evident in the exhibition, which is broken up into three parts. The first comes at the entrance to gallery 1 on the museum’s main floor, with the work that’s also the exhibition’s namesake. The massive sculpted Styrofoam piece — the artist terms these “color objects” — with its jagged lines, crumpled and twisting shape, and brash use of color bleeds out across the side of the gallery and into the garden, cutting through the floor-to-ceiling glass of the Renzo Piano structure.

The dialogue that Grosse’s piece enters into with the space it inhabits is paramount. “Scale is an important element in Grosse’s work — she often plays with the way her objects and installations relate to the human body,” notes Craft. “Renzo Piano’s building is very much on a human scale — it creates a sense of intimacy that heightens this quality in Grosse’s work.” “WUNDERBLOCK,” as well as the exhibition as a whole, distorts the clean-cut ideas of what painting can be, versus sculpture, and of where the outside ends and the inside begins. “I really don’t think these things are sculpture,” says Craft. “They act like sculpture, or take up sculpture’s space, but they still very much come out of Grosse’s concerns and passions as a painter.”

Katharina Grosse, exterior work for "WUNDERBLOCK" (2013) (photo by Kevin Todora)
Katharina Grosse, exterior work for “WUNDERBLOCK” (2013) (photo by Kevin Todora)

The next piece the visitor sees echoes the first: a second color object in the Nasher garden. Visually, it’s quite wonderful to look at — a large painted sculpture that rests on the lawn and gives off a reflective sheen from the hot Texas sun. However, the piece just doesn’t work; it feels disjointed from what’s going on with the exhibition as a whole, lacking the fluid dichotomous quality of the rest of WUNDERBLOCK. This was likely an attempt to further the viewer’s exploration of the Nasher’s spaces inside and out, but the piece ends up lost in the larger landscape of the garden. It has too much to compete with, as  elements of the permanent collection take center stage in the plein air environment.

The third and final element of the exhibition (and my favorite) resides on the lower level of the Nasher. This piece is probably the best embodiment of the ideas presented in the exhibition. In a large room, Grosse installed mounds of soil from wall to wall, which she then covered with the same highly saturated pigments that she uses in her color objects. The installation confuses the question of where the artwork ends and where it begins even further, with the paint and the three-dimensionality of the soil spilling across the space in an unconventional way.

Installation view, “Katharina Grosse: WUNDERBLOCK” at the Nasher Sculpture Center (click to enlarge)
Installation view, “Katharina Grosse: WUNDERBLOCK” at the Nasher Sculpture Center (click to enlarge)

What’s more, the viewer can traverse the gallery. After removing my shoes and donning special cloth booties, I began walking across the floor. The uneven surface reminded me of walking on a beach and added a new dimension to the work. The room also includes two large canvases sprayed with color that bleeds out onto the walls and washes into the palette of the floor. “The gallery has one wall of glass,” Craft explains, “and as visitors come down the stairs it provides a breathtaking, completely unexpected vision of a wholly different environment.” It felt like a tactile version of a work by James Turrell, completely immersing the visitor in the art and making her forget that she’s in a museum.  “[This is] the first time the artist has allowed museum viewers to walk in one of her environments with soil,” Craft adds. “Being in it really creates the sensation of being in a painting.”

Katharina Grosse: WUNDERBLOCK is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center (2001 Flora Street, Dallas) through September 1.

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