BY Mathieu Malouf in Features | 25 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 25

Kai Althoff Dossier: Mathieu Malouf

Mathieu Malouf on material juxtapositions in Kai Althoff's works from 2007

BY Mathieu Malouf in Features | 25 AUG 16

An apocryphal legend about Kai Althoff tells of how, after experiencing irritation that his work was selling to collectors the moment it left his studio in the late 1990s, he pissed all over an exhibition held discouragingly deep in the German woods. Despite the distance and smell, buyers still managed to sniff their way across the maze to a good deal. Aimed at the canvas, a cis-gender male urethra had unleashed its urine against both its physical weave (linen) and a more social one (the collectors). This iconic posture could almost serve as a metaphor for the genius of Althoff’s entire production. Like a Big Berkey portable water filter, the surface of the work absorbs piss – real and proverbial – filtering it down to rare essences. These become among many base elements of an ever-expanding repertoire of unusual materials in the artist’s oeuvre.

While much has been written about this complex, multidisciplinary work for which ‘mercurial’, ‘seductive’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘German’, ‘expressive’ and ‘elegant’ are commonly encountered qualifiers, remarkably little has been said about its use of materials. Looking at Althoff’s work from my own standpoint, as of an artist working in various media, it’s amazing to observe the wealth of different techniques, as well as the suspiciously overlooked technical mastery they are born of.

The medium-sized Untitled (2007) at first appears to be a fairly conventional painting possibly painted from a photograph depicting three people sitting on a couch: a mustachioed man surrounded by two women. Nothing is really as it seems. What could pass as stretched linen turns out to be simple cloth. The unusual palette of purple skintones, bright red background with visible brushstrokes, and bright yellow checkered sofa appear to have been rendered by hand without the use of any tape. Rather than sticking to a single type of paint (acrylic, oil-based, and so on), here there is a mix of enamel, acrylic and emulsion, which might have been used to mix colours on the fly, making for an idiosyncratic chromatic mixture.

Such unorthodox use of materials is not limited to painting. In a detail of an installation presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery in late 2008, a lion or some sort of cat made of pigmented resin is trapped in a cage with a perplexed expression on its face (Untitled (to Lionel Maunz), 2008). This cage is a complex item: a magenta table that serves as a base could be a found object, while the bars comprising a circle of pointed shoes resemble the way feet and legs are drawn in some of Althoff’s drawings. While it may just be a coincidence, it is most likely an outsourced component made by a professional welder or using 3D-printing technologies, which at the time were just beginning to make their way into art production (announcing the technological fluency of artists like Helen Marten and Yngve Holen we can appreciate today). The lion’s mane is made of a mop dyed yellow, an economical gesture that adds fluff to an otherwise rigid assemblage.

Another work, Untitled (2007), exemplifies Althoff’s expertise in challenging the conventions of normal canvas-stretching. This time, the cloth is stretched on the upper and lower parts of the frame only, without ever touching the side-bars. This is fairly unusual, and not at all ‘correct’, technique but Althoff gets away with it. The visible wooden bars appear to have been painted with the same yellow as the shirt worn by one of the figures in the painted image, one of two chromatic redundancies in the work (the other one is the red colour of the background is echoed by the red used to paint the frame around the painting). It’s difficult to establish whether the canvas was torn manually or with scissors, and for that matter, whether the hanging piece of fabric dangling from the side is part of the same cloth used for the central part of the image. Even though it is possible to make a clean tear in cloth if ripping in the direction of the weave, it can be difficult to do so once the canvas is stretched and painted on. One assumes that, in this case, a knife was used for a clean line.

Another favorite of Althoff’s that is presumably from the same series is Untitled (2007): a square-shaped painting for which no information about the materials used or dimensions is available. Four figures are interlaced in a complicated composition that defies gravity – one of them is Caucasian and the three others possibly non-human given their green and orange skin hues. Resembling another one of Althoff’s works (Untitled, 2007), Untitled could very well have been realized with the same mixture of emulsion and enamel and – who knows – pastels or charcoal, given the sketch-like details visible around the breasts. The background appears stained and crusty and the careful observer will notice pleats in the canvas. Those irregular patterns can sometimes be the result of paint being applied from the other side of the fabric and in this particular case, the lack of decisive evidence to the contrary leaves us with no other choice but to be open to such explanations. There is definitely more than just unilateral brushwork in Untitled.

‘Oil, lacquer, dispersion, tempera, poster and cloth’ are the listed materials for one of the most complex of Althoff’s 2007 painting, Untitled. In Untitled, it is literally impossible to tell what has been painted in oil and what is lacquer, tempera or dispersion. Poster is usually easily recognizable when collaged onto canvas, as in Nicolas Gambaroff’s series of abstract paintings using glue and poster to create repetitive doodly patterns, for example. Here, it just blends in, adding a unique feel underneath the surface. It’s invisible, but we know it’s there.

Untitled seems to be another one of Althoff’s painting that doesn’t contain gesso or any sort of base layer. While it can be assumed that the tempera would not normally be applied on top of oil in accordance the ‘fat over lean’ rule of thumb. When a ‘lean’ layer (tempera, for example) is applied over a ‘fat’ one (oil), the ‘lean’ layer can crack if the one underneath it isn’t fully dry yet. Yet much of the alchemical beauty of Althoff’s work lies in an intuitive orchestration of technical imperfections – whether obviously intentional tears in the canvas or accidental paint drips. 

Rule-breaking is not only a virtue for those who innovate and move the world forward – it’s a vital necessity. Amidst the tumult of the uncertain times we live in, rules are being rewritten everyday by mavericks of all kinds who dare where others fear. Kai Althoff is clearly not afraid to do things his way, and this is partly observable in his unusual handling of materials, among other things.

Mathieu Malouf is an artist based in New York and Los Angeles.