Over three decades, Kai Althoff has devised exhibitions and art works of expert craft and virtuosic refinement, forged fictional monikers and actual bands, staged near-cultic workshops and entered passionately informal collaborations with other artists that seem to disband or counter the rigour of his other ways of making. What unites the artist’s many activities – aside from the enthusiasm that drives them – is the selection, cultivation and representation of a community of initiates as well as – reciprocally, the natural antagonist to a community – a public that may be as fascinated as it feels excluded. A joint work with Cosima von Bonin at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart in 1995 (Hast du heute Zeit? – Ich aber nicht; Are you free today? I'm not), as part of which the artist served drinks behind a bar, sitting behind a divider for a public who could not ‘access’ or engage with the work’s makers, suggests that this line between initiate and uninitiated is a deliberate staging. More pressing, the matter suggests how Althoff’s works may be considered – even ‘outside’ their ostensible élite enclosure – in relationship to larger developments, say a service or ‘gig’ economy of barkeepers and freelancers that in recent decades has emerged as part of the mainstreaming of so-called ‘creative industries’.
For all the historical possibility of the artistic community as an ideal for a belief and praxis in everyday life, today, these larger, networked forms have called into question that ideal. The ‘bohemian’ lives that reappear through Althoff’s works can seem like conscious or unconscious ciphers of larger or more generalized structures of disaffection and precarity – this is why nostalgia, always present as a risk or threat in Althoff’s works, is never simply given into. Or at least not without the use of humour. As much as the artist may seek to distance himself from any apparent ‘outside’, and surround his works with layer after layer of initiation, much of the works’ power results from the deft, if unexpected, mobilization of such an exterior.
The recurring dialectic in Althoff’s work between inside and outside, initiation and alienation, identification and disaffection, occurs quite clearly, for instance, in the artist’s depictions of lone religious devotion: figures with haloes, or with Mannerist deformities, or monks or Jews, or an early drawing of a cross-bearing man (Untitled, 2001), pointed at or harassed by a hazy figure behind: all depictions of belief, stigmatization or banishment. But similar operations of regulation between outside and inside per,meate the outermost layer of his practice, the artist’s public representation and persona. Consider the ‘work’ installed at Documenta 13 (2012) which comprises a handwritten letter, containing no less than Althoff’s digressive, emotional explanation of how he will, after all, not include a work in the exhibition, due to the artist’s sense of creative fatigue.
Yet perhaps nowhere does this tension between initiation (or ostracism) and dis-affection (or defection) become more patent than in Althoff’s installations. To enter an environment by Althoff is to trip into a setting of singular delicacy and transmogrified energy. Contradiction becomes a principle of form, in the way styles, tonalities, examples of refined skill and ‘un-skilled’ artefacts, ‘pure’ art and applied craft collide and oppose one another with apparent expertise and alternate imperfection. A case in point was Althoff’s 2014 exhibition at Michael Werner in London: extending everywhere, within a space which is by definition enclosed, were antagonistic images and exertions of power (‘strong’, historical painting) and depictions of people with vacant, phantom gazes. Within this refined, bourgeois interior setting were representations of weakness or fallenness: deformed canvases, raw crumpled linen and ‘dead’ mannequins, lying on the floor, at times humourously or stupidly so. Kai’s boutique.
The ingenuity and animation with which Althoff has not only devised imaginary universes but pitted them against each other in his installations of past decades inevitably elicits in the viewer a combination of attraction and repulsion. But is Althoff demonstrating technical mastery or staging more general conditions of social control? The London exhibition, with all of its deliberate staging of interiority, had a charged, public component. In the accompanying text the artist wrote of how, ‘having turned into a heavily opinionated and high-strung personality, which seems to brood with anger that unloads fast’, he wishes to create an 'antidote ... by way of work that aesthetically calms the soul and seeks to provide shelter in elegance, reflecting the utilization of art in the homes of intellectually brilliant, tasteful people from eras long gone ... As soon as this notion seems satisfied, he starts to wrangle equally with the content and comfort and ultimate value of such work, which if successful, results in a dizzying void that defies words and complicates emotions.'
In other words, Althoff seeks to set off the traditional cliché of the artist’s social alienation and refined aesthetic ‘genius’ against the equivalent cliché of an interior of bourgeois reception – the condition of collection (the home) or salon (an intimate viewership). By way of their collision, we are reminded of their mutual, historical apparition – an instance where apparent oppositions in Althoff’s art are played off within a setting of collusion. Yet the success of this endeavour – the stated aim of art as a form of interior soothing and therapy, from the artist’s self-identification as ‘angry’ (socially stigmatized) – equally serves to seal off any viewership outside of that constellation into a vacuum: the 'void' which 'defies words'. As much as the installations accomplish the task of complete immersion into a carefully crafted world, the assumption into a ‘pure’, even hallucinogenic experience of total transportation becomes impossible: this is art, and aesthetic experience is conditioned by temporal and spatial limitation. Here is maybe the crux of much of Althoff’s distrust of all manner of commentary (such as this text): they inevitably seek to break the seal of ‘unification’ of artistic persona and sphere of viewership.
Kai's boutique is an allegory of betrayed belief. For the installation Aus Dir (2001) at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne, he sought to create a ‘Christian meeting place’, including coloured pencil drawings of monks casting each other out, while converting the gallery into a Christian youth club, with tea candles, homoerotic pictures of nude backs, and leaning bicycles in an autumnal idyll. In deliberately calling upon the setting of a 1970s space for ‘protection’ of youths, Althoff invited an equation of religion and counterculture. Both are milieus of dual belief and activity that require their delineation against an ‘outside’, and shelter, since always potentially disintegrated and hence vulnerable. In theological terms, one name for this structure is kenosis, or the contradictory power-in-weakness.
The kenotic iconography of religion that is everywhere in Althoff’s paintings remains deliberately ambivalent: it speaks for the power of belief, but also its inefficacy in mobilizing a form of activity outside of Adorno’s ‘false life’. Religion – like counterculture – may seek to designate and represent a circle of ‘believers’, or it may stigmatize the wicked or the cruel, or expel the betrayers. This structure of stigmatization and manic designation (Stigmata aus Großmannsucht, ‘Stigmata of Megalomania’, to quote the title of a 2000 exhibition) itself partly redeems Althoff’s works from the potential cliché of art as a metaphor for belief: the sheer unpopularity and ‘wrongness’ of religion as a cipher for countercultural and artistic ideals represents its own, second-order form of highly potent fallenness.
In Althoff's works, stigmatization and redemption, opposition and inversion, and formally, the utter acrobatics of apparent craft and strengths, are often counterbalanced, within the frame of a painting, by scenes of silent horror, weakness or pain. Often there is imagery of human cruelty, for example, a pipe-smoking turn-of-the-century man beating a bed-ridden patient (Untitled, 2001). At his best, Althoff stages a condition of moral ambivalence: say, in works where sensitive, pencil-line depictions of an Orthodox Jewish family seem to suggest the latent abuse of insular settings and communities of belief (Untitled, 2010). In Althoff’s installation at Michael Werner, there were pencil-drawn scenes of ghostly children of a nauseous sensitivity and delirium, figures alienated from the ‘adult’ world of accountability and economy, and eyeing one another in eerie suspicion (Untitled, 2014).
Complementing the vivid presence of such scenes in drawings and paintings, there may be other ghosts as well here, installed on the floor – at Michael Werner, the departed figures that look as if they had escaped from woefully woven sweaters that lie strewn on the parquet (and which reveal the technical, obsessive labour-time that went into their production). Here was a simple arithmetic of pathos: the mobilization of force toward nothing, of spent or wasted energy, the patent uselessness of what could have been used, of power made vernacular, then elevated again. We find it here in the stated invitation to play with the tactile fabric and linen draped throughout. Combined, this all suggested the possibility of a pure sense of aesthetic enjoyment that is free from future transfer, exploitation or interest: ‘free play’. You want to leave with such a thing, such an experience, but are left by it. To depart from the environment, not unshaken by the horror and antagonism depicted in the paintings, is to re-enter the spitting, cursing, loving world of real people wholly changed.
Upon leaving the gallery, you wonder what to make of a personal, moving, self-contradictory and painfully bizarre experience. You take another walk around the block, yearning for solutions – wondering who or what hovers behind, and often in front of what’s going on – but find only hollow, straw men, like the mannequins that you just saw lying paralyzed and blank on the gallery floor. An Uber zooms by, a new billboard is being installed, there’s a missed call, and one’s own life, in comparison to Althoff’s scenes of heroic, romantic intensity in the name of art, seems impossibly pedestrian and commercial and lame – no commitment, no permanence. Later, with the self-distancing of irony, one seeks to explain such an experience with Althoff’s work, but finds only words like ‘beauty’ and ‘intensity’; one wants to forget these words, like the scenes themselves, but simply can’t.
When you wonder if it was all rigged. Were you really duped by that circus act? Someone asks, rolling a cigarette. You reach for your wallet to buy a soda, but you’ve already given your money away – to that hurdy-gurdy man back there, in the middle of a pedestrian zone, cranking a soundtrack of cloying obviousness. Althoff's work then invites this further self-distancing.
In general, contemporary art sits awkwardly between the professionalized ‘art world’ and numerous other parts of the creative industries, between various professional (invested) or general (uninvested) publics. It simply can’t remain on the level of bohemian community, but must reconcile itself in some form with the conditions of its viewership and representation outside of itself. This necessity would seem to stand in direct antagonism to Althoff's project of aesthetic autonomy. It is against this background that Althoff – as if triggered or mobilized by the necessity of self-alienation – seems intent to push against the conventions of the art system. He has, in interviews, expressed a hatred for professionalization. With his apparent command of historical styles and techniques, and despite his distancing from the ‘system’ more generally, he of course moves, at times marginally, within it, and yet always radically seeks to dictate the selection, setting, commentary and reception of his works. As he recently clarified in a letter issued in lieu of a press statement for his upcoming survey exhibition at MoMA, New York, Althoff aims to exhibit only ‘in the manner that my mere self tells me to now’ in order to move and engage a general viewership – ‘whether they care about art or not’. The outsize heroics of this endeavour – to affect a great many others through the sheer autonomy of his artistic vision – would come off as puerile or romantic were the works not of an undeniable aesthetic quality and alienated beauty.
Rather than a ‘solution’ to this sequence of oppositions, this would appear to present instead a critical and aesthetic problem. To what extent is this position justifiable – to what extent are terms like ‘quality’ and ‘power’ and ‘beauty’ still criteria to be accepted by a critical or aesthetic enterprise? Or do such values resemble the many arcane or démodé styles which the artist recovers, as through found material for a work? Distancing himself from certain members of the art establishment (allegedly he has over the years turned down numerous offers to show at prestigious institutions), while undertaking relentless collaboration amid a network of select peers, even Althoff’s artistic persona seems vestigial. The artist’s tight control over the contextualization of his work could provoke accusations of exclusivity or elitism. Is Althoff’s belief in art underpinned by a metaphysics of suspicion or even paranoia – or is he diagnosing the caustic conditions of an artistic system that seeks to corrupt the experience of his works?
While a typical solution for that dilemma would simply be to sever the art work from the artist’s expressed intentions, in many cases, the looming presence of Althoff’s artistic vision – amounting to a form of public performance in itself – prevents that from happening. Calling the artist’s bluff, we can use this public-private performance as an opportunity to ask basic questions about art and its reception, the artist’s role in a cultural industry or aesthetic community, and – indirectly – about the way art should set itself up for commentary. If the artwork should, in the purest sense explicitly sought by the artist, insist upon its autonomy and stand on its own, then why require its regulation and policing, as well as the fervent construction of an artistic persona?
An artistic approach can be redeemed by its awareness of its own insufficiency, through setting itself up, so to speak, as its own mannequin, enacting its own redemption after being sullied. There is a tendency in modernist music that seeks to reconcile traditional form (a sonata or waltz) with anti- traditional innovation, dissonance, destruction. Or compare Frank O’Hara’s mobilization of sentimentality that unexpectedly hurts. With Kai Althoff, similar movements and inversions occur. Professing the eclectic art historical references of a bricoleur, from 19th century to contemporary weaving techniques, he likewise returns to the outmoded, the amateuristic, the counterculturally obvious. Clichés of a classical bohemia in the hatwork, of ‘strong’ heroics, of genre painting, all of which hover between the naive and the wholly committed, are never quite ironic. The question then becomes what to do with this dual structure of profanization and sacralization, of feelings and techniques and media degraded suddenly redeemed? Finally, the question arises, upon leaving the exhibition or closing the artist book, whether some big trick has just been played – whether the imaginative realm that has been constructed, or projected, is simply a vacuous one devised to trigger a delight that will ultimately reverse. After all, the same images of the creative life have become the ideal, hackneyed images of the day, potentially hovering like blank haloes around every laptop in a Brooklyn café. Like oxygen entering a helium balloon, the condition of the inflammatory strength and anger of Althoff’s works is the real presence of the very ‘outside’ he has worked with such enthusiasm to reject.