Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach

Kai Althoff ’s art— as opposed to his bohemian attitude, his participation in a band and in various collaborations, his penchant for oppositional and controlling framing of exhibitions—is tricky to pin down: Dominic Eichler spends 10,000 words dancing around it to predominantly tangential effect in his catalogue essay for this show. But we can start by noting that the challenging setting is present and correct at the Whitechapel Gallery, with three distinguishing features. First, the means of display are striking. Second, the sheer volume of work included is unusual. But whereas Althoff’s letter refusing to take part became his contribution to dOCUMENTA 13 (2012) and the German’s retrospective in his adopted home city of New York (MoMA, 2016–17) saw many of the paintings loaned left unpacked in their boxes, here we find 130 paintings and works on paper displayed. It’s enough to challenge the viewer’s ability to attend to them individually. And third, Althoff shows himself in conjunction with what is in itself a significant show of 50 ceramics by Bernard Leach (1887–1979)— mostly pots, jugs and tiles but also two drawings, several buttons and a necklace. All in all, then, as unpredictable as you would come to expect.

Left: Installation view, detail, “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach,” 2020, Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK. Photo: Polly Eltes. Right: Bernard Leach, Vase: Solomon amongst the lilies, 1926, stoneware, 21 x 4 centimetres. © Bernard Leach Estate. Leicester Museums, UK. Image courtesy of Leicester Museums.

The work of the two artists is set out very differently. Walking into the downstairs space, I was overwhelmed by a dense and disorderly hang of small paintings, not just on the walls but on ramshackle partitions. Moreover, the high space has been lowered by a false ceiling, which appears to be a temporary measure while building work goes on above. Looking up through a semi-transparent tarpaulin, we can see that leaves and dirt have collected on it. My impression was of stumbling into the decaying house of an outsider artist. This hang spills on up the stairs, but the separated main upper space is a contrast: Leach’s ceramics are presented on a patterned textile in a line of 16 exaggeratedly museological vitrines, all as commissioned by Althoff with the cloth designed by his friend and fellow artist Travis Josef Meinolf. Where such vitrines might typically form part of a busy display, here they are an isolated sculptural presence: the opposite of the deliberately arbitrary crowding downstairs. As it happens, London holds a simultaneous coming-together of another artist-hero combination; but where Tracey Emin puts herself side by side with Edvard Munch at the Royal Academy, emphasizing their similarities in both form and emotional tenor, Althoff distances himself from Leach both physically and presentationally—as if he wants to go with him but isn’t sure he’s worthy.

Installation view, detail, “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach,” 2020, Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK. Photo: Polly Eltes.

As for the multitude of paintings, they are typically muted in colour and look somewhat scruffy, being made on scraps of material, cardboard, etc., many in odd shapes, some draped in lace. They range from restful to alarming, gorgeous to cack-handed, clearly delineated to murky. The gallery handout gives few clues to their intent: the works span 1979 (when Althoff was 13) through to 2020 in a comprehensive and unhierarchical overview. There are no wall texts—at Althoff’s request—and most are untitled, making it of limited value to track them down in the complicated diagram listing the works. That handout also contains a short text by Francia Gimbel-Masters, in what I take to be an intentionally stilted style. The text seems to report indirectly on Althoff’s views: “the work is depicting things. Really showing things everyone can understand, as they speak of the human condition, if at best, with a blandness, only a man with a deeply malignant proliferation of total faith would allow himself to employ in his work to illustrate such a condition.”

Althoff’s style is eclectic, allowing any number of possible echoes: German expressionists, Japanese ukiyo-e, Ensor, Gauguin, Redon, Chagall, Klimt, Schiele, Beuys, Polke. There are many figures. A bishop leans through a window to place golden balls on three men sleeping in bunk beds. Doubting Thomas feels for Christ’s wound. One 19th-century figure, with wondrous sideburns and top hat, relishes beating up a similar figure beneath him. A World War I soldier shares a beer with a boy. A ’60sstyled man in flared trousers walks through colourful low clouds. Three figures appear to swoon in the simple pleasure of hanging out the washing. A half-mannequin half-man stumbles from the effects of legs so severely broken we can see the bones in his knees. Two figures smile blissfully, doubled by reflections, as they open a large box. Predominantly, then, we see group activity—often of a ritualistic or performative nature—and individual characters who appear to have been plucked from such narratives. You might read these as explorations of community building and belonging, provoking the question: Where does the viewer fit in? Is Althoff including us through the act of showing the paintings, or excluding us through the contrarian way in which he does so? The whole seems to be on the cusp. Hence, perhaps, the physical and psychological violence that recurs; the sense that we are seeing the dark side of our subconscious archetypes, that Althoff’s intent is spiritual, not representational.

It could be concluded that the only way to live, the only route to self-actualization—whether intellectual, mystical or erotic—is socially. Yet that is also the root of the problems when it all goes wrong. In principle, come on in—but in practice, maybe stay out. That is consistent with what Nicholas Baume suggested in his catalogue essay for Althoff’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston in 2004, that “Althoff is fascinated by the extent to which the actions of the collective can be driven beyond the limits of personal morality or even self-preservation. Families, educational structures, peer groups, and secret societies each embody forms of authority to which one must submit in order to enjoy the pleasures of participation and belonging.”

Installation view, detail, “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach,” 2020, Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK. Photo: Polly Eltes.

In one of Althoff’s simplest and most charming paintings, a hand gives benediction to a vase. So why choose to show with “the father of British studio pottery”? Althoff says he detects a shared mysticism and “wishes his painting to function ideally like one of Bernard Leach’s pots.” Certainly the painterly aspects of Leach come across strongly at the Whitechapel, together with the materiality of his clay, which is often left nakedly visible or provides the dominant tone of unglazed brown. Those qualities are clearest in raku from the 1920s, and in slipware. Leach is credited with bringing the raku technique—hand-shaped vessels removed from the kiln while still glowing hot, generating unpredictable results and intense colours—from Japan to Europe. Slipware uses a liquid mixture of clay suspended in water to paint relief markings onto the vessel. A jar from 1917, for example, Raku with trailed red and blue slip decoration, epitomizes Leach’s fluid call-and-response embellishment of the visibly handmade. Potter and curator Dr Matthew Tyas, writing on Leach in the catalogue, says that these raku and slipware examples “are the pots I would handle first because their softer clays and glazes, compared to their stoneware counterparts, invite my touch. I would want to physically understand these early pots that are not always technically or aesthetically accomplished, yet often possess a spirit of freedom—pottery is, after all, a haptic medium. What are they like to hold?”

Leach promoted pottery as a combination of Western and Eastern arts and philosophies, including his influential publication A Potter’s Book, 1940. He worked interculturally and collaboratively through the arts community he established in St Ives. Eichler’s essay contrasts Leach’s “ethos emphasising the dignity of a simple vessel, egalitarianism, embracing the spiritual eutopic usefulness of handcrafted objects and notions of essence and authenticity” with the “self-indulgence” and “self-importance” of contemporary art, “or at least the monied and transactional segment of it.” You can imagine all that chiming with Althoff, though tracing likenesses in the works is more difficult.

What I suspect Althoff might be after is how, because pots are theoretically functional, albeit their placement in vitrines pointedly cuts that off, they don’t carry the same expectation of meaning as paintings. What if even figurative paintings could “just be” in that way? What would we lose, and what would we gain? And might a show of such paintings look like a Kai Althoff retrospective? ❚

“Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach” was exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery, London, from October 7, 2020, to January 10, 2021.

Paul Carey-Kent is a freelance art critic in Southampton, England, whose writings can be found at www.paulsartworld. blogspot.com.