Los Angeles

Kai Althoff


I was going to start this review with a list of some of the recherché items found in Kai Althoff’s first solo show in Los Angeles, but I just got bored. So I’ll nutshell it this way: a Deco garage sale presented as a singular wunderkammer marketed to ADD sufferers, it was a highfalutin “etc.”—especially if the working model of “etc.” is a college theater department’s set, prop, and wardrobe rooms combined and then exploded.

If Althoff’s installation had actually been the labor of some of the obsessive netting-and-veil queens from whom he self-consciously borrows—people like Jack Smith, Bruce Conner, and Stevie Nicks—the gallery doors would have remained locked, with the artist still futzing with things until maybe a day before the closing. Instead, all the delicacy, Scheherazade nuttiness, and nightshade queerness of Smith has been “Extreme Makover”-ed into a stage set for painting, where painting is both literal prop and metaphorical proscenium. Even without the collages, drawings, and mixed-media paintings strewn (and hung, leaned, and hidden) among the tchotchkes like food in a beard, what “supports” this contrived mess is a rhetoric of (and market for) painting. Regardless of the other media Althoff at times conjures, his dependence on the pictorial points to the redundancy and conservatism of his project: There is no rethinking of space beyond merely filling it up with stuff; no rethinking of temporality beyond old-timey styling.

Among the things hanging on the wall or hanging around nearby were a lot of scumbled, angsty Egon Schiele pastiches and a suite of shiny poster-sized images, including liquor ads, florists’ ads, and a close-up of a face, printed on Mylar for an effect Madonna put to better use in the packaging of Sex. In one drawing, a top-hatted gigolo figure with a vest over his pink torso sticks fingers from each hand up the noses of two naked victims, one male, one female, their legs bound behind their heads, the antics caught beneath a scribbled-y chandelier. This drawing under glass was propped on an expertly thrifted Lucite chair padded in black vinyl, with a sheer ivory blouse and pink negligee draped nearby. Was this doodle a key to the goings-on? I’m not Rain Man enough to care.

After seeing the hodgepodge, I used a gallery washroom in the back of a packed storage area. It was filled with stacks of shipping crates, paintings, and photographs, and near the toilet were some old exhibition posters, shelves of cleaning fluids, and a jumbo box of Extra Strength TylenolTM. The washroom’s random accumulation may not have been any more meaningful than Althoff’s art-directed mise-en-scène, but it certainly wasn’t any less so. I guess the best spin to put on all of this would be to see Althoff in the light of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s take on Isa Genzken: that to have the self succumb to the totalitarian order of objects brings the sculptor to the brink of psychosis (although, postfeminism, it’s hard to tolerate terms like psychosis, theoretical or not, in discussions of a woman artist). Genzken navigates the moment by adhering to some vestige of discrete sculpture, which, paradoxically if only momentarily, can stymie the optical glut of capital. Contrarily, what Althoff proffers is hardly a contemporary take on The Arcades Project. Rather, he evades decision and responsibility in favor of eBay shopping. Althoff’s decorator aesthetic (“gay” in its signs, although risking no definitive signification) is Norman Bates without the murder, taxidermied repression, or dead mother—everything that made that faggot fun.

Bruce Hainley