The Daily Telegraph

An ex­pe­ri­ence for the heart, not head

Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach

- By Lucy Davies Arts · Whitechapel · London · New York City · East End of London

Whitechape­l Gallery, London E1

One doesn’t so much walk, as lower one­self into a Kai Althoff ex­hi­bi­tion – as you might sub­merge your body into an un­known and not al­to­gether friendly sea. The Ger­man artist, who lives in New York, likes to cre­ate rich, strange and pre­cisely honed en­vi­ron­ments in which to dis­play his work. To step in­side one is to be trans­ported to a world in which only his rules ap­ply, and it is as dream­like as it is dis­arm­ing.

For his new ex­hi­bi­tion at Whitechape­l Gallery in London’s East End (the gallery’s first new show since re­open­ing in the sum­mer), Althoff has paired paint­ings and draw­ings he has made over the past 50 years with works by the Ed­war­dian ce­ram­i­cist Bernard Leach, con­sid­ered the pro­gen­i­tor of Bri­tish stu­dio pot­tery, and a fig­ure for whom the 54-year-old Althoff says he nur­tures a “deeply rooted love”.

The op­por­tu­nity to re­flect on pos­si­ble har­monies or a like-mind­ed­ness be­tween the two artists is an in­ten­tion­ally provoca­tive one. Though Althoff has pre­vi­ously sug­gested that his pic­tures are ves­sels of a sort, the link be­tween the men is bet­ter un­der­stood in terms of their joint in­ter­est in folk­lore and dec­o­ra­tion, though, to be hon­est, it is hard to see even that in the Whitechape­l pre­sen­ta­tion, be­cause Leach is kept wholly out of sight un­til you reach the fi­nal, chan­cel-like room.

We be­gin with maxAlthoff, in a large gallery con­tain­ing an “in­tu­itively ar­ranged” se­lec­tion of his paint­ings and draw­ings. Dom­i­nat­ing it all is a vast mem­brane of trans­par­ent plas­tic sheet­ing, sus­pended just above head height, which feels – I imag­ine – like be­ing trapped un­der­wa­ter in a frozen lake. It is beau­ti­ful though. Look up, and you’ll see that the scratched and muddy sur­face is cov­ered with leaves, winged sycamore fruit and other woodsy de­tri­tus ac­quired dur­ing the sheet­ing’s months-long ges­ta­tion in Brox­bourne Woods, Hert­ford­shire. (The drown­ing scene in the film Don’t Look Now was filmed there, which only adds to the gen­er­ally threat­en­ing air.)

Althoff ’s work re­sists de­scrip­tion, not least be­cause he works in a dizzy­ing ar­ray of styles and medi­ums. The pic­tures rus­tle with folk­lore, re­li­gion (par­tic­u­larly Catholi­cism), fairy tales (of the darker va­ri­ety), death, in­va­lidism, bo­gey­men, pigs, birds, lost chil­dren, jack­booted thugs, but also tower blocks and cor­duroy trousers and Tu­dor­bethan houses. It’s life, but life fil­tered through mem­ory, or dreams: dan­ger­ous-seem­ing and tasty and ex­u­ber­ant all at the same time. At first, I found the lack of ti­tles or dates for any of the pic­tures in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing. Althoff is fa­mously dis­dain­ful of in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his work, and pur­posely curbs, where he can, any­thing that might prompt you to try. But once you sim­ply sub­mit to the whole, un­der­stand­ing it as a tri­umph of mis­di­rec­tion that will for­ever be wrig­gling away from you, for­ever just out of reach, its colour and pat­tern and ex­quis­ite draughts­man­ship of­fer some­thing else en­tirely: a chance to lose your­self in an­other world en­tirely, and a glo­ri­ous one at that.

 ??  ?? An­other world: Kai Althoff uses an ar­ray of styles and medi­ums
An­other world: Kai Althoff uses an ar­ray of styles and medi­ums

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