The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) began a new kind of exhibition last year inviting the artist group SIMPARCH, to create a lobby installation that cut into Zaha Hadid's architecture with more than a hint of iconoclasm. This sort of exhibition transforms the center's lobby, a carefully planned space, into an art event.
With SIMPARCH's installation down from the ceiling, it's a wonder that the CAC could find something that seemed even more at odds with Hadid's strict plan. Yet Katharina Grosse's untitled installation -- splashes of color, a mound of half-painted earth, which is decidedly different from SIMPARCH's vision -- forces us to see the lobby in a new way.
Last month, Grosse flew in from Germany, where she lives and works. (Her paint spray gun was confiscated on along the way, a likely happening.) She took about a week -- hidden to CAC visitors by canvas paint guards but completely visible to those walking along the windows facing Walnut Street -- to transform the corner of the lobby into a colorful, sumptuous, smart artwork.
Her process is not easy to define. As an art student in Düsseldorf in the early 1980s, she was conflicted. Her peers were working with video (one of her professors was the "grandfather of video art," Nam June Paik), photography and new media in general.
"I was constantly confronted with, 'Why do you still paint?' " Grosse says.
Of course the questions affected her, but she pushed on with her painting. She began to incorporate tools, like the spray gun, into her repertoire. She lost the brush in order to lose her biased hand in the work. She stopped painting "realism" and moved decidedly into the abstract.
"I wanted to do away with painting what I see and focus on simple conditions." Paint. Canvas. The movement of color across a space.
Soon, the canvas became obsolete as well. Grosse thought more about space itself, the way color and light interact with space, and the way that we, as sensory beings, perceive such space. The choice, then, of inviting Grosse to work with the CAC lobby was a brilliant one.
"I had seen the building before," she says. "It was a big deal, even internationally. But I came here to see what I wanted to do."
Grosse confesses that she never has an actual plan to her work; instead, she picks her basics and lets the space take over. At the CAC, her basics were bright acrylic paint and a pile of earth. The dirt sits in the corner, near the window -- half painted, and half just plain dirt.
The dirt is where the work gets interesting. You can't look at a pile of dirt in an "internationally big-deal" building without wondering why it's there. Hadid was clear about her concept of the "Urban Carpet," that is, bringing the sidewalk into the building itself, connecting the outside with the inside.
Unfortunately for the CAC, though, many in Cincinnati who walk by the building see it as something forbidden and frightening. The urban carpet "doesn't really work," according to Grosse. She couldn't be more accurate.
More than that, though, Grosse is making a statement about architecture, which sounds very Zen.
"You start out with earth," she says. "And you make this great building. But you have to know that it will eventually become earth again."
It's a cycle, and she recognizes it in her own work.
What she has made at the CAC will eventually be destroyed in order to make room for the next artist who will fill that space. Grosse compares the idea to a Buddhist mandala. An amazing amount of care goes into the monks' work -- they spend hours and hours making a perfect sand painting. Yet when they're finished they blow the work away. They destroy it.
The mandala serves as a reminder that everything in life is transitory, bound for some sort of grave. And yet that should never stop any of us from working, living and creating.
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