Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach

On 21 December 2020, by Mala Yamey

At Whitechapel Gallery in East London, the German painter Kai Althoff’s exhibition pays homage to the British Potter Bernard Leach’s (1887-1979) influence on his practice.

Installation view of “Nalini Malani: Can You Hear Me?”
Photo: Luke Walker, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Althoff (b. 1966) wishes for his paintings to function like Leach’s pots. His practice is centered on a spirituality, which he channels into his objects: “things to look at and immerse oneself in when all words fail, imagery to worship and degrade…” Francia Gimbel-Masters (A fictional spokesperson for the Workshop, Althoff's band) Althoff sees Leach’s pots as similar ‘vessels’ for Faith, and admires that their form reveals their function harking back to the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain, in the 19th century. In Althoff’s totalizing exhibition design, staged in three galleries, the viewer is encouraged not only to appreciate the particular in his paintings, but also to embrace the general environment.
Entering the exhibition, I was met with an incongruous hang of works on both the bare walls of the gallery and a gray dividing screen under a dirty plastic tarpaulin, scattered with leaves and twigs. The absence of wall texts meant that there was no prescribed viewing order. I noticed strange pencil markings on the walls showing measurements and lines; unusually Althoff has left his process of design visible to the public. He has framed each work differently and arranged the hang in an improvised rhythm disregarding discrepancies of scale and color.

Installation view of “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach”.Photo: Polly Eltes, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach”.
Photo: Polly Eltes, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Althoff’s style seemed timeless, similar to the linearity of Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) and the colors and forms of the German Expressionists, pulling me towards Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). His palette ranged from muted ‘autumnal’ to harsh fluorescent tones similar to the Die Brücke artists and his iconography included images of contemporary Jewish life, scenes of intimacy and death, as well as religious subjects. The variety of influences and forms in this haphazard environment made it feel as if I was entering into Althoff’s sketchbook or studio.
Althoff’s affinity with Leach was only illustrated in the final room, where 40 of Leach’s pieces were displayed in long vitrines. The pots, buttons and other ceramic elements sat on woven rough fabric with colorful and geometric patterns. The vitrines and fabric were specially made by Althoff’s friend Travis Josef Meinolf, therefore are contemporary. However, their rusted exterior and the faded cloth within created a sense of fictional history, drawing an imaginary lineage from Althoff to Leach. In this final display, the artist became not only curator but also a temporary collector with a ‘wunderkammer’ of Leach’s pottery.

Installation view of “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach”.Photo: Polly Eltes, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of “Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach”.
Photo: Polly Eltes, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

The lack of written information did not clarify the connections posed in the title between Althoff and Leach. I had to form my own visual links and comprehension in the cloudy curatorial world created by the artist. Althoff has immersed his public in images instead of words, preventing us from clinging to traditional wall texts in other exhibition contexts, and encouraging instead an organic flow uninhibited by text. Sometimes we just want to look not read.

Nalini Malani’s Can You Hear Me?
Nalini Malani’s Can You Hear Me? Is an immersive video piece projected onto the brick walls of the former reading room at the gallery. Centered on the recent news story of the violent rape and death of a young girl in Kashmir, India, Malani has created 88 animations drawn on an iPad that play in sequence on the walls. Like the feeling that Althoff creates, Malani welcomes the visitor into her sketchbook and reveals the workings of her process. She has filled the walls with quotes by authors ranging from Hannah Arendt to Bertolt Brecht, and overlapping images and text in the fashion of collage. As a social activist artist, her installations are intended to make the viewer think socio-politically and as a visitor, I can attest to feeling moved and ashamed by my lack of knowledge of the story she told. Immersed in a strongly colored flashing storybook with fictional and real characters, I could constantly hear Malani’s voice reading Samuel Beckett’s words “try again, fail again, fail better”. Her words of failure ringing in our ears reminds us of our need for perseverance in this time of international catastrophe, and the bold colors and forms stick in your mind ingraining her message in your retina.

Worth Seeing
“Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach”,
until January 10, 2021

“Nalini Malani: Can You Hear Me?”,
until June 6, 2021
Whitechapel Gallery, London
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