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Diamonds in the rough
Kai Althoff at the ICA

It’s been a while since an exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art reminded me of Romper Room — Robert Mapplethorpe’s decorous transgressions in photography a decade and a half ago may have been the last time — but there’s no getting around it now. The walls of the first-floor gallery throb with deep-magenta-colored paint set off by occasional big blue triangles. Together they form the backdrop to Kai Althoff’s own colorful, sprawling, decorous, and essentially expressionistic retrospective, the first in the United States for the 38-year-old German artist.

It’s tempting to see Althoff as belonging to one of the renegade strains in contemporary art, in the way of, say, Barry McGee, whose show is up at Brandeis until July 25. For one thing, both artists use garbage for their installations. At a mezzanine level, sectioned off so you can’t walk through, Althoff has assembled an expanse of refuse that looks like a miniature town dump. Elsewhere a heap of similar litter and debris, plastic and clothing, metal scraps and cigarette butts, stretches across a low-slung rise like a nihilistic version of the Medici tomb.

Then, of course, there’s the informality — the disavowal of all high-minded technique, the playpen of materials, the Polaroid snapshots of friends goofing at a party. But it takes not much more than a minute to realize that Althoff is no renegade at all. Yes, he’s unpremeditated — which shouldn’t be confused with spontaneity. Yes, he’s idiosyncratic, and yes, he creates elusive pictorial narratives that invite you into their story lines only to deny you access in the end. But when you get past all the tropes of contemporary art making — the careful lack of refinement, the deliberate distortions of form and scale, the mishmash of media — what you arrive at is an artist struggling with some grave, basic issues. Above all, with his process-is-everything approach, Althoff appears to be asking whether art ought to aim for permanence or embrace the ephemeral, whether narration is ever credible, whether the most personal and private aspects of our lives can reflect the larger condition of our time.

Born in Cologne in 1966, Kai Althoff enjoys sufficient success at home and abroad (two solo exhibits in New York in recent years, a cover story in one of the national glossy art magazines) to be disqualified as an outsider artist. Still, the label dogs him, and for good reason. Largely self-taught, he seems motivated less by a desire to belong to the museum world than by the desire to create his own visual diary. Touring the more than 150 works on display in "Kai Kein Respekt (Kai No Respect)" (who makes up these titles?), I had the sense of discovering a family album or a trove of personal correspondence. The exhibit feels less like a museum or gallery event and more like home movies. And in some ways it’s the very expansiveness of "Kai Kein Respekt" that undermines its impact. (Part of the reason the magenta walls and blue triangles aren’t more annoying is that the show has been hung salon style, and that considerably reduces your exposure to the lipstick hues.) Home movies can delight a select audience in a living room, but they’re unlikely to draw crowds to the Cineplex.

In fact, "Kai Kein Respekt" suggests that the artist himself was a powerful force in the shape the exhibit takes — Althoff chose the wall colors, stenciled by hand the distracting numbers beside each art work, and as I understand it also decided on the sequence of the entire three-floor layout. Artists are notorious for not knowing how to edit their own work, and this show holds up as a case study in the damage that happens when curators surrender their role as editors, set designers, and impresarios. "The Waste Land" would never have achieved its status as a poem, let alone a seminal work of art, had Ezra Pound not taken a hatchet to Eliot’s first draft. The messy, crowded thicket that "Kai Kein Respekt" puts forth makes it almost impossible to enjoy the moments when Althoff achieves his tender, delicate, forlorn poignancy. So you’ll need to machete your own way through the dense undergrowth to discover the exquisite, largely hidden wonders that he does produce. But it would be a mistake to allow your first or even your second impression to dictate your final assessment. He has a lot to offer; you simply have to work to see it.

And you don’t have to wade through everything. First, you can afford to pay less attention to just about everything abstract — it’s Althoff at his weakest, clumsiest, and most self-indulgent. You can also ignore the three-dimensional work — the garbage installations, the ceramic doodles, even the open book that stands like an accordion on a low riser in the main gallery, with illustrated pages that haven’t been separated. They register as either derivative or incomplete.

In Althoff’s drawings, on the other hand, particularly those that entail religious motifs, he goes beyond diary making to embrace both narration and important human themes. In Der heilige Nikolaus von Myra/Saint Nicholas of Myra (2002), the blond-bearded, red-mitered bishop of Myra leans through an open window to drop a bag on three sleeping figures in a triple-tiered bunk. In the fourth-century story, they’re sisters who otherwise will have to sell themselves into prostitution, but it’s hard to tell who Althoff has in mind. Behind the casement, and unseen by Nicholas, a scrappy, dark, androgynous figure watches wide-eyed and open-mouthed. It’s hard to pinpoint the image’s power, but I think much of it lies in its integration of the ominous and the tender, the violent and the sensual. You can almost feel the bishop’s breath on the face of the sleeping figure in the uppermost bunk, and the disturbance he creates appears simultaneously small and devastating. The figure in the lowest bunk looks as if it were in a death spasm; the one in the middle sports no face (it looks to have been erased).

No less haunting is Antonius Eremita/St. Anthony the Hermit (2002), which stands as a chilling and enigmatic representation of the hollowness of desire. Against a dreamy wash of orange and red, St. Anthony is seen resisting the embrace of an outstretched demon between whose legs extends a forked tail. Below the demon’s torso, the colorful background disappears, suggesting the drama is taking place on a ledge from which both may fall. St. Anthony pulls back from the prostrate figure’s face, which seems to have closed its eyes in anticipation of a kiss, and yet his red, downcast eye appears disengaged not just from the demon but from his own place in the mysteriously erotic tangle.

For all his laid-back 1960s affectations (the garage-rock band he performs in, the happenings he stages in a Cologne update of Warhol’s Factory) and the fuss that’s made in the ICA’s press materials about his eclecticism, what’s most intriguing about Althoff is his ability to deliver moments of dramatic clarity and pointed vulnerability in an otherwise freewheeling, unrehearsed style. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Das Fleisch seiner Knochen/The Flesh of His Bones (2002), in which a marionette-like figure wearing only a knitted cap and briefs comes across both as puppet and torture victim, antic dancer and emblem of pain. The figure’s limbs have been stretched to the breaking point, as if he’d been crucified; your eyes move between his expressionless face and the bones exposed where his legs have broken at the knee. Carefree agony or agonized nonchalance, it’s an image of strange, gripping transcendence, playful and devastated, carnal and plastic.

"Kai Althoff: Kai Kein Respekt (Kai No Respect)"

At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, through September 6.

Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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