The German artist Kai Althoff is a second-generation Neo-Expressionist storyteller whose works constitute what might be called a scattered surrealist symphony of both youthful anomie and bohemian optimism. Although he is most notorious for vibrant, vaguely homoerotic scenes that could have been painted by the love child of Edouard Vuillard and Egon Schiele, such moody, two-dimensional creations are but fragments of a vast opus that incorporates installation, sculpture, video and music. Now 44, Althoff, frequently collaborates with other artists, often credits his works to imaginary alter egos, and occasionally drafts solipsistic texts that detail the complex, imagined narratives that accompany them.
For his current show at Gladstone Gallery in New York, titled “Kai Althoff: Punkt, Absatz, Blümli (Period, Paragraph, Blümli),” the artist proposes the story of a hapless man who gets sidetracked from voting when he runs into an old female friend from school and is attracted by her husband’s silky beard. He follows the woman and her husband home and stays the night, but then awakes depressed and lonely. The episode amounts to a Kafkaesque moment in an aimless life.
To represent this eccentric mise en scene, Althoff has effected a fantastic transformation of the main gallery space, lowering the ceiling, adding a bright yellow floor and lining the top edges of the walls with a row of fluorescent tubes. This setting is outfitted as a kind of living room, with a sizeable handmade shag carpet (elevated off the floor so it seems to hover like something from 1,001 Nights) and a bizarre freestanding art-moderne shelving unit holding dozens and dozens of brightly hued coffee mugs.
Althoff has populated his scene with a life-sized couple who look a little like folk-art figures made from papier-mâché. The man, who is casually dressed but has a blonde bouffant, leans into the woman, who wears a knee-length yellow dress and seems to retreat back against the shelf, dislodging a couple of the mugs. The scene is fraught with sexual tension, though the figures themselves have only the faintest of facial features.
The walls of the room are hung with phantasmagorical paintings of goblins and ghouls, juxtaposed with more realistic works that often depict Jewish culture, a subject apparently of special interest to Althoff. A pair of meticulously finished pencil drawings, for instance, shows Hasidic men with their signature forelocks and black hats in grocery stores, and an especially festive watercolor of a crowd of young people with luggage on a van is called Untitled (Kibbitzim). The fates of Germans and Jews are now intricately intertwined, but with Althoff the way in seems to be via the utopian farming communities of Israel’s early days.
The conclusion to Althoff’s story is found in a separate gallery, a boudoir-like back room at the end of a hallway lined with floor-to-ceiling velvet maroon curtains. There lies a rather grotesque creature, a Fauntleroy in red pants, a tan jacket and multicolored bow tie, wearing a luxurious Chinese robe with a fake-fur collar. The figure is deflated, and resembles a Pee-wee Herman as depicted by Egon Schiele. Nearby, a delicate cloth sculpture of a heating vent contains a red satin heart, just visible behind a row of horizontal bars -- as if a feeling that is forbidden.
The day after the exhibition opened, the space was pervaded by a strange, sweet smell. The effect intensified the rich colors and textures of Althoff’s haunting environment, a parody of lusciousness that suits a particularly Nordic brand of grotesque beauty. It’s also one key to good art -- an artist’s enthralling imagination.
“Kai Althoff: Punkt, Absatz, Blümli (Period, Paragraph, Blümli),” Jan. 15-Mar. 5, 2011, at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.