German conceptual artist meanders amongst media

By Zoe Stillpass

Entering the Kai Althoff show, Kai Kein Respekt (Kai No Respect), at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I felt as if I had walked into a party full of strangers who the host had brought together for some unknown reason. I was disoriented and confused. This retrospective of the young German artist—his first in the U.S.—consists of more than 140 works, executed in a wide variety of media and styles. Moreover, the works are arranged in such an incoherent way that the viewer feels sucked into a strange world of disconnected stories and images. I attempted to tie them all together, yearning to discover a coherent theme. But, in the end, my failure revealed itself as a measure of the artist’s strength. I found great beauty and charm in the multiplicity of Althoff’s views.

Althoff designed and oversaw the installation himself. He wanted to create a very specific experience for the viewer. There are five rooms, each painted in an unconventional color, such as eggplant and turquoise. At the entrance of the show, there is a rack offering guides to the exhibit. These guides list the titles and dates of the works and provide explanations for about a third of them. Inside, there are no labels on the walls. However, Althoff has hand-stenciled numbers by each of the works. But these numbers are non-consecutive, and the works themselves are not displayed chronologically. In fact, there seems to be no apparent thematic order. The viewer is free to draw his or her own relationships between the works. There is no beginning, middle or end.

The show includes paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, installation pieces, videos, music, sculptures, and more. There is even a sort of rec room, with montages of Polaroids on the wall and TVs and CD players to watch Althoff’s videos or listen to his band’s music. The artist lacks formal training in most of these media. While many of the paintings are skillfully executed, several others have a crafty, folk-art feel. His is a “do-it-yourself” aesthetic. One collage of orange felt looks almost like a kindergarten project. The rec room appears especially low tech. Unlike the high-resolution, flat-screen monitors frequently used by other contemporary artists, Althoff shows his videos on old TV sets. On a table sit VHS tapes from which the viewers can choose and put in the VCR themselves.

There is as much range in style as there is in media; it seems more like a group show than an exhibit of a single artist. Furthermore, Althoff makes references to many different artistic and historical movements. One wall is filled with drawings and paintings that resemble German expressionism. Small figurines sit in a primitive African style upon a table in the middle of the room. He seems especially fond of the kitschy, hippie style of the ’60s and ’70s. He has included many cartoon-like images with flat, bright colors reminiscent of Yellow Submarine and Peter Max.

Althoff’s imagery mixes autobiographical fact with fictional narratives. For instance, one drawing tells the story of a young man revealing his homosexuality to his friends. There are many references to having grown up with hippie parents. But also, his life often follows from his art. In one drawing he portrays an imaginary character with an archaic, thin goatee, which he later grew himself. Through means such as these, Althoff creates a dimension where life and art influence one another and become indistinguishable.

Community is an integral part of Althoff’s work. Perhaps this is why he is so interested in the utopian ideals of the ’60s. His collaboration with other artists—most clearly in his band, Workshop—allow him to create works that encompass varied points of view. A number of the photographs in the show were done by friends. Althoff abjures the idea of the subjective genius expressing his emotions through his art. Rather, he attempts to do away with authorship and posits a more democratic type of art.

Althoff’s manifold viewpoints give the exhibit its schizophrenic character. The viewer jumps from a photograph of friends smoking and hanging out, to a happy cartoon cardboard fold-out, to Nazis, to saints, to a pair of pants in a glass case, or to an awkward paper mosaic. Althoff mixes the mundane with the spiritual. He transforms the staunch white cube of the museum into an interactive space for viewers to interpret the show for themselves. While allowing the works to speak for themselves seemingly without control, he still manages to bring it all together quite lyrically. The show continues until January 23, and it is definitely worth the trip.