View of “Kai Althoff,” 2014.

View of “Kai Althoff,” 2014.

Kai Althoff

View of “Kai Althoff,” 2014.

Walking into this exhibition was like stepping into a time warp. Was this Kai Althoff’s imagining of a workshop of some seventeenth-century Puritan dressmaker? After all, linens were draped from ceiling to floor, and three clothed dress forms were positioned among a worktable and chairs. Yet at the same time, four thick knitted sweaters and brightly colored plastic paintbrushes were also strewn about the scene, while music from Althoff’s latest LP, Fanal 4, provided the sound track to the strange scene. Paintings, some of them oddly shaped, were positioned around the room. They alluded to such a vast number of artistic styles and periods—from medieval weaving to German Expressionism, folk art, Cubism, and symbolism; even Picasso’s Blue Period made an appearance—that it was difficult to put a finger on one.

In this theatrical and pseudo-historical space, bathed in a warm glow from a large lamp with a shade made of fiberglass matting, every moment felt like a temporal jolt. In one pair of paintings, both untitled, 2014, each depicting a pair of pigs rendered in rose tones that invoked the hue of fading fabrics soaked in the grit of historical time, a rippling pattern broke up the image plane. This rendered the pigs barely visible, suspended between figuration and abstraction—a suspension furthered by the surface textures of the canvases, which bore the marks of previous use, and which were propped up against a wall from which fabric came cascading down. The result was a disorienting displacement between background and foreground; in all the paintings, images appear to melt into the surface and emerge from it at the same time.

Of course, this disorientation was exactly what Althoff had in mind: a statement of intent that was contained in the first work encountered on entering the show, hung in a smaller gallery space preceding the main installation. A large, untitled colored-pencil drawing on paper that was mounted on a felt-covered backing board, the 2012–14 work contained the exhibition’s most clearly rendered images and exemplified the strangeness of Althoff’s opaque, enigmatic narratives. In the foreground, a woman stands with colored pencils in her hand, as a small group of men in the corner of the frame (dressed in what appears to be bekishes, the long black coats often worn by Hasidic men) attempt to wrangle them from her grip. Although she faces the viewer, her eyes are turned toward a boy covered in a blanket (exquisitely rendered) and wearing a red helmet that she drew to protect him (so the gallery staff explained) when he bangs his head against the wall.

The story continues in the background. Emerging out of a triangular frame depicted within the drawing—a window into a field—is a red-faced man, his body falling back as two smiling men look on (one wielding a menacing-looking implement aimed at the falling man’s groin). Though the scene came off as a strange kind of castration ritual, I was told that it had no sinister meaning, but instead referred to the Jewish conception of the Messiah, who, unlike the Christian one, has not yet come (and who will not be killed before his duty is done). Yet this specificity revealed nothing of the work’s ultimate meaning. On the surface, it seemed to reflect what the press release claimed was Althoff’s intention for his art in this show: “to embody the hefty balance between spirituality and adornment.” But this very claim was rebuked in another painting, which depicted a couple barely visible in a muddy-brown scene—most likely a café—over which a Buddha hovered: apparently a statement on the false spirituality of the bourgeoisie. In this uneasy ambiguity, the “hefty balance” Althoff claimed to seek was articulated through purposeful contradiction.

Stephanie Bailey