Coloring Outside the Lines: Katharina Grosse’s first Midwest solo show at the Renaissance Society

Atoms Inside Balloons, by Katharina Grosse, shot by Shakthi Nataraj

For Katharina Grosse, color is not just an aspect of her art: it is her art. This German installation artist has been covering surfaces around the world with distinctive bursts of color for nearly a decade, extending her work beyond the confines of traditional materials and sometimes even away from gallery walls. She forgoes a paintbrush and canvas in favor of a paint spray gun and whatever structural surface she might encounter, whether it be a stairwell, bookcase, or the exterior of a building. For Grosse, as curator Hamza Walker of the Renaissance Society explains, “it’s about paint, color, and space.”

So when Grosse was asked by the Renaissance Society to display her work in the Ren’s own unique gallery space, with its towering neo-gothic ceiling, her effacement of structure with color was sure to produce a dramatic and visually stimulating installation. In Grosse’s exhibition, “Atoms Inside Balloons,” running from April 29th to June 10th, bright swaths of color bombard the viewer from all directions. The bright hues do not just emanate from the flat surfaces of the gallery walls, but they actually drip down over a giant cluster of balloons that dominates the center of the room. Color strikes the viewer in such a way that the dimensions of the room become, if not cancelled out by the color, as seemingly dynamic as the splotches of color, blending into one another.

Grosse began working on the installation nearly a year ago, when she came to view and document the space so she could create a proportional model and find a way to allow her colors to overcome the emptiness of the gallery. Given the high ceilings of the space, which could have potentially created a distance between the viewer and the paint, she found a way to bring the color down to the audience with the use of massive balloons that intrude upon the emptiness of the room with the vibrancy of the color that coats them.

While the form of the exhibition and the precise colors involved were carefully planned out as Grosse conceived of the work, the actual application of the color to the surfaces of the balloons and gallery with spray guns was a spontaneous process that consisted of on- the-spot decisions. Just looking at the exhibition, one can see the movement involved in this process of application, with the patches of paint varying in intensity, concentration, and size across the installation. Walking around the room gives the viewer a continually changing perception of the colors and the depth of their layers so that the colors themselves seem to move and display Grosse’s unmistakably active role in the process.

The centrality of the balloons in the space, while visually striking in itself, also holds certain significance for this particular exhibition. Just as the air particles, or “Atoms Inside Balloons,” give life and shape to the space through a process of expansion, so too do the particles of paint, dispersed onto surfaces by means of the compressed air of the spray gun, come to create expansive forms of color. The idea of shaping and dispersing particulate matter gains further significance when it is considered with respect to the location of the exhibition itself, only a short distance from the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, a circumstance that Walker describes as a “happy coincidence.”

Grosse’s installation in the Renaissance Society is her first solo exhibition in the Midwest, and just as the effect of the entire work hinges upon action, movement, and process, the surge of colors that takes over the gallery will disappear at the end of the exhibition, only to show up later on a surface somewhere else in the world. While the swaths and spurts of color pervade the space and move about the gallery for the moment, though, the installation provides an interesting glimpse of Grosse’s unique take on what it means to be a painter, and acts as a testament to what color can really do.