New York

Christof Kohlhofer

Protetch McNeil

Christof Kohlhofer is a real wunderkind—a genuine wild man, an authentic German-American hybrid, utilizing the perverse best of the two modes: cockeyed commentary on a cockeyed world, and the use of visual hype to show up the media hype in terms of which we think we live our lives. His surfaces are febrile and fierce, and at the same time frivolous, as though the horrific images he traffics in are one big decorative throwaway—the only way to make them push their way to visibility in a world already saturated with the visible, a world in which all appearances seem fake and nobody knows what a true one would be. Kohlhofer gives us the true appearance by exploiting the familiar one until it starts raving maniacally. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves—portraits of our Presidents done on towels, reducing them to cheap souvenirs of our political consciousness (and “dedicated to Ronald Reagan dem greatest artist of them all”)—cons us into believing, in a hallucinatory revelation, that our leaders are not only con artists but lunatics.

Kohlhofer’s party atmosphere, his sense of the farcical masquerade of it all, is the powerful instrument of a vehement anti-authoritarianism. He turns our society’s own instrument of friendly fascism—media mentality and decor, the celebratory visual appearances that mask the ugly reality with a decorative high note—against itself by “expressifying” it until it changes appearance, becomes grotesquely and absurdly revelatory. In the Daliesque, paranoid/critical Lola’s Skull, 1982, a skull looms out of the “soothing” Peptobismol surface flow, the quasi anamorphic becoming an instrument revenging our expectations of the lovely. The psychoanalyst Anthony Storr has written about the ubiquity of paranoia in our society; Kohlhofer has made this inherent feature in our upbringing at once the subject and means of his art. He passionately articulates our vulnerability—one of the things expressionist “action” painting has always been about beneath its macho veneer.

We know what a no-no therapy is for the neopurists, who feel it compromises art’s vaunted autonomy (read: insularity as a sign, a closed conceptual system with an absent referent). In these “Therapeutic Paintings” Kohlhofer tries to cure us of our own inertia, of a consciousness that acknowledges the horror of it all but does not feel invaded by any of it, not even by its own helplessness. Such a therapeutic task has always been implicit in expressionism, as a way of destroying the mystique—the lie, the betrayal—of detachment. Kohlhofer’s Africa, 1983, shows the continent with spears in it, a bleeding map or sign; abstractions also bleed when what they signify is implicitly present, never really being explicitly absent. Concreteness pours in from the realm of connotation for Kohlhofer, overwhelming the denoting abstraction. Red Rum Cake, 1983, becomes a cobra, The Atomic Twins, 1983, are boyishly destructive, in Heroin #1, 1983, death is unexpectedly more fulsome than the orgiastic figures. In Kohlhofer’s works the childlike, the cartoony, the photo-mediated, keyed up by expressionistic fervor, take turns at undoing abstract signifiers of the social concept. The pictorial deviance Kohlhofer creates allows the referent to overflow onto the sign, turning it into a swamp.

Donald Kuspit