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That '70s show

Two ICA exhibits offer contrasting, vivid flashbacks

The 1960s and '70s are fascinating to a generation of artists who are too young to have taken in the particular craziness of those decades firsthand. The Cologne-based German artist Kai Althoff, born in 1966, and the New York artist Carol Bove, born in 1971, are among them.

Each has just opened a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art that refers to those decades: Bove's installation is about taste in design and the sexual revolution, Althoff's about anarchy.

The shows are firsts for both: the first solo museum show for Bove, the first major museum survey for Althoff. The exhibitions, both organized by ICA curator Nicholas Baume, attest to the museum's determination to be a leader in 21st-century art, and they hint at what's to come in the new waterfront home it hopes to start building soon. The programming plan is to have three concurrent shows: one an import, one from the permanent collection (which doesn't exist yet), and one in the "Momentum" series of little-known artists. Bove is the first "Momentum" artist.

First doesn't mean fresh. Both Althoff and Bove practice the kind of total-experience art that's been around at least since the "happenings" of the 1960s. They're tweaking rather than pioneering -- but that's OK. If artists weren't allowed to work in established genres, no one would have picked up a paintbrush after Raphael. These are both strong, confident shows, loaded with visual appeal. They just aren't revolutionary.

Among the elements of Bove's mezzanine-level installation are beige carpeting, a modernist modular desk/bookshelf, a huge piece of driftwood, and books that were icons in the era of mods and hippies. A wistful touch is a piece of creamy vellum with the faintest of images. It's Twiggy, the cult model of Bove's chosen period, looking like an apparition at a seance.

Bove's soundtrack is an Alan Watts essay called "The Future of Ecstasy," read aloud. Written in 1971, it predicts the new heights of creative sexual expression that would exist in 1990, when obstacles such as stress and materialism would be conquered, leaving more time for sex. There's a copy of the "Kama Sutra" close at hand, should anyone need suggestions about variety.

The driftwood is actually a bench, and a nod to the fluid forms of the "natural" furnishings popular in the '60s. If you can't sit on it for all 45 minutes of the Watts piece, Bove has provided free CDs and LPs of the reading to take away.

The lightheartedness of her approach is epitomized in the desk. If you're naughty enough to ignore the usual "don't touch" museum rule (and here you're intended to), you'll pull down the front of the desk and find a battered paperback copy of Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book."

Bove's room is relatively subtle; Althoff's "Kai Kein Respekt (Kai No Respect)" storms through the ICA's first- and second-floor galleries. You'd be able to tell that Bove is American and Althoff a European on the basis of style and content. Bove is cool and wry; Althoff aims for a kind of cataclysmic grandeur that makes you think of German predecessors including Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer.

Althoff, who is swiftly gaining a reputation as a talent to watch, designed the installation and chose a screaming palette of hot pink, aggressive blue, and blinding yellow for the gallery walls and other details, including the jacket covers of his videos. Versatility itself, Althoff also writes. Handouts of his poetry are in the ICA galleries. The writing is full of German angst. He makes music as well, with a band he calls Workshop. Some of the recordings are in the ICA show, as are examples of most of the other media he uses. To watch, listen to, look at, and read everything here would take a couple of days. Mercifully, the installation includes chairs, a couch, and platforms where you can sit and read the artist's writings and what's been written about him.

The show's free brochure is an essential resource, because the works have no labels, just numbers beside each one, keyed to explanations in the booklet. The brochure also alludes to the 19th-century German idea of combining all the arts in a unified gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork." The term doesn't work with Althoff's ICA show, though. The wall colors help pull it together; beyond that, fragmentation rules. The brochure lists 143 works, and almost no two of them hanging on the walls look as if they belong side by side. You can try to absorb everything you can see at once, or you can take in one work at a time. There's no middle ground.

Cut-paper collage, embroidery, crayon, and cardboard have more of a role in his work than do traditional "high" art materials. (He rejects hierarchy.) The sheer scale of this densely hung show conveys urgency and passion, as if Althoff's thoughts had tumbled out of him and he'd grabbed whatever material was closest at hand to record them in the heat of the moment.

As for imagery, young men figure more prominently in his world than women do. References to Christianity and reincarnation, lumpy clay figurines in vaguely Tang dynasty dress, drawings in a style that recalls Aubrey Beardsley -- they're all part of Althoff's world, one completely known only to him.

The show's catalog calls Althoff a storyteller, a creator of fables and fantasies, but there's no overt narrative here. You have to consult the brochure to tell what's going on, for instance, in an ensemble including 18 gouaches and a huge lump of carpeting in an anthropomorphic shape. It turns out to be from Althoff's fairy tale about the Urian Brotherhood, a secret society of "stinking, ugly men," as the brochure puts it, who "live underground, where they engage in wild and violent brawls."

With the idea of "brotherhood" in mind, the installation sometimes comes off as a boy's messy room grown out of all proportion.

If you hold that thought throughout the show, the ending -- and there is one, quite definitely -- makes sense. It's a glass-walled space in chaotic disarray, filled with furniture broken, overturned, and spilling its stuffing; smashed glasses and dishes; trails of food on the floor; mud-colored sneakers; dirty sheets. It looks like a frat house the morning after a particularly wild party.

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