Of the slew of exhibitions during the centenary of the Leach Pottery in St Ives, this must surely be the strangest. Kai Althoff Goes with Bernard Leach pairs the German-born artist with the great man of 20th-century studio ceramics - to curious effect.
The Whitechapel Gallery's first two rooms are filled with 130 of Althoff's paintings: enigmatic scenes like fragments of dreams, drawing on a hodge-podge of art-historical styles - part Symbolist, part Expressionist, part Japanese ukiyo-e. Canvases depict kids in smocks holding lanterns; fisherwomen bear trays of shellfish; a Prussian soldier supports his comrade. Overhead, the ceiling is made low by a huge piece of clear plastic laden with grubby leaves and dirt.
The third and final gallery is a Leach retrospective in miniature, displayed in a long Edwardian-style vitrine. Inside, pots sit on a rainbow-hued wool, silk and alpaca cloth woven by Travis Joseph Meinolf, a pleasingly folky foil to the white cube.
This selection shows him at his illustrative best, such as the graceful figurative decoration of his vase Solomon Among the Lilies (1926) or the brushwork of his tiles. It spans the entirety of his career, featuring pieces from the 1910s to the 1960s. Alongside canonical examples sit rarities: I'd never seen Leach's ceramic jewellery, nor his buttons. An ET-like fabric sculpture that seems to be giving birth sits nearby.
What does it all mean? The titular 'Goes with' suggests, perhaps inadvertently, a happy decorative pairing, and it's true: the two men's palettes do harmonise. The black tenmoku and greenish ash glazes complement the dappled obscurity of Althoff's paintings. His large pencil drawings have a pale luminosity mirrored in Leach's blue-green celadons.
There are no interpretative texts, although scanning a QR code provides a list of artworks and an essay. This is not much help (Time Out describes this as 'unreadable, opaque art waffle'). Written by Althoff under the pseudonym Francia Gimbel-Masters, it says: 'He wishes for his painting to function ideally like one of Bernard Leach's pots.' What does this mean? It's not made clear.
Cryptic utterances tell us that Althoff, like Leach, combines the mystical with the everyday. 'This Faith, the Spiritual, the beatenup [sic], cud-chewing folklore often detected by some in his work, is utilised to accompany him through life.'
It's an interesting idea: Leach, the prim Edwardian, throwing in an immaculate tweed suit, and this bad-boy artist, infamous for pissing on his paintings - hardly an obvious pairing. Yet their interest in spirituality may be one link. Leach was, following his conversion in 1940, increasingly preoccupied by his Baha'i faith, while his obsession with Japan was quasi-mystical.
Meanwhile, Althoff's painterly preoccupations include visions of Christ and church arsonist Varg Vikernes. Neither appear in this show. Instead, there's a shadowy sense of the uncanny. There's a parallel between the spooky shadow puppet on Leach's charger of 1932, say, and the offbeat figures glimpsed through Althoff's painterly murk.
Perhaps what's valuable is just the fact of 'brown pots' appearing in a gallery renowned for its cutting-edge approach: a decision sure to place Leach in front of new eyes. Seeing familiar pieces in a fresh way is usually enriching; this show stops short, however. With its old-fashioned vitrine siloed off into a room of its own, there's little added that couldn't be gained at the loaning institutions (the V&A, Crafts Study Centre and the Fitzwilliam Museum, among them). I left disgruntled by its masturbatory hermetics - and wistful for the postponed shows of the Leach centenary. Let's hope that more satisfying offerings can emerge this year.