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Kai Kein Respekt
(Kai No Respect)

Bridge House Publishing

A page from Kai Kein Respekt, with family photos and Indonesian puppets

A page from Kai Kein Respekt

Dark Optimism
by Nicole Davis

Kai Kein Respekt (Kai No Respect), 120 pp., Bridge House Publishing, $40.

The German artist Kai Althoff (b. 1966) is what passes in todays art world as a rising superstar. Though he has only had two solo gallery shows in the U.S., both at the Anton Kern Gallery in Chelsea (in 1997 and 2001), his work has been included in an important survey at the Museum of Modern Art ("Drawing Now" in 2002) and featured on the cover of Artforum magazine. Word is that his major works -- colorful images of attenuated young men engaged in semi-mystical narratives -- now sell in the $100,000 range.

Althoffs first-ever museum survey opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston last May. Titled "Kai Kein Respekt" -- Kai No Respect -- the show is currently on view at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Sept. 23, 2004-Jan. 16, 2005.

Althoff has been producing artwork since the 1980s, when he was part of a band called "Workshop." The collective-creation model -- inspired by Andy Warhols Factory, among other examples -- has been a recurring feature of Althoffs artistic activity, and has extended to setting up interactive exhibitions that engage his audience in the art-production process.

His artistic medium ranges from traditional modes like painting, watercolor and drawing to more freewheeling forms of installation, video, music and amateur craft activities like sewing. And though he is not a performance artist, his work often has a performative aspect -- it is autobiographical and theatrical both, and depicts imagined characters and narratives as much as literary, historical and personal events. Additionally, his works can serve as props for these characters.

In this regard, critics have suggested that if Althoff has an American counterpart, it would be Mike Kelley. Althoffs subjects, however, are far more delicate; his flirtation with childhood and adolescence forgoes Kelleys antisocial abjection in favor of innocence and devotion. Since 2000, Althoff has even adopted a certain spirituality, taking up religious subjects -- though in a specifically countercultural way, addressing "spontaneous human combustion," for instance, rather than the more typical Biblical notion of the burning bush.

For those who are unable to see the museum survey -- travel-wary New Yorkers, for instance -- the exhibition catalogue is something of a stand-in. Printed in Germany by Bridge House Publishing in Miami, the project was overseen by Jim Clearwater (husband of Miami MoCA director Bonnie Clearwater).

Typically, a museum catalogue marks the point at which the artist is barred from his or her own work. It is a sanctuary wherein curators, critics and other essayists can examine the works from a safe distance, quarantined from the artist, so to speak, in hopes of reaching a social -- rather than a personal -- understanding of their meaning.

Here, however, the catalogue is very much an artists project by Althoff himself, work of art, a literal extension of the exhibition. And Althoff does a good job at keeping his catalogue an avant-garde affair, for he shoves his esthetic in the readers face with a diaristic intensity and corresponding insouciance.

The pages of the magazine-like softcover book are magenta, yellow or blue, the text blue or white or gray. The pictures mix a few reproductions of Althoffs works, many of them blurry or reproduced sideways, with a scrapbook collection odd and capricious imagery, much of it next to indecipherable -- childhood drawings, family snapshots, magazine illustrations, performance documentation, goofy doodles and graphic designs. Althoff has even laid out the cover with yellow type and border, as if to ape the style of National Geographic.

This prank is part of the mystique that has helped to rocket Althoff to the art ionosphere. Such verve has been an integral part of German art since the 60s and 70s, when Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger and other School of Dsseldorf artists combined Pop hedonism with the strong anti-authoritarianism that took root in German youth culture after World War II.

Inside are texts by four different writers. Two of the contributors are the shows curators, Nicholas Baume from the Boston ICA and Francesco Bonami from the Chicago MCA. And two are German critics -- Olaf Karnik and Diedrich Deiderichsen.

Baume does a reasonable job at restoring some order to this affair with his helpful discussion of Althoffs work and history. Still, Baumes insights come cheek-by-jowl with a certain amount of hagiographic nonsense -- Althoff is a fanciful hipster of privilege, not a god walking the earth.

Karnak provides a rather confusing memoir that similarly celebrates Althoffs genius (he "belonged to the circle of the chosen"), discussing the music and lyrics of Workshop (which included Stephan Abry) and videos made with another group of artists, Filmgruppe West. As for Bonami, he offers a short and playfully poetic interpretation of Althoffs work that provides absolutely nothing of real use to the reader.

Though similary poetic and weighed down by art-critical flights of fancy, Diederichsens essay at least discusses Althoffs work in terms of German culture, citing signs of German identity from August Sander to the Nazi Sturmabteilung, and from the early 20th-century Wandervogel youth movement to Joseph Beuys felt forms. In the end, Althoffs work is rooted in the German culture of the 1970's and 80's, a tipping point at which German adolescents were subject to a historical pathos that they didnt feel they owned. In rebellion against this psychological dilemma, Althoff and other artists of his generation transgressed into a world of fantasy and myth -- a form of quirky, appealing escapism.

Althoff indicates the weight of this reality in a statement in the catalogue: "In general I like the past," he says, "and how it could have been and could have become a perfect future." The quote is innocent and sad, but at the same time offers a sense of hope.

Althoff personifies a dark optimism. His work has allowed him to realize a multitude of realities, a variety of futures. Few are perfect. Is this Althoffs intention, to indicate that the outcome cannot be changed? Or, is he merely a dilettante, sampling from life unchecked by time and the constraints of a single identity? Althoffs artistic impulse is formed by a very contemporary German dialectic between a perfection that could have been and a damnation that seems ever imminent.

NICOLE DAVIS is a New York art critic.