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Indepth Arts News:

"Stephan Balkenhol: New Works"
2000-11-17 until 2001-01-06
Forum for Contemporary Art
St. Louis, MO, USA

There are certain artists whose work seems to gain respect and recognition despite peer pressure, trends and fashion. Stephan Balkenhol is among this group. While his peers were pursuing Minimalism and conceptually based work, Balkenhol burst onto the scene working with the most traditional of all subjects - the human figure. Balkenhols figures are straightforward, simply posed and stoic. He carves his figures in wood and clothes them in modern day dress.

In his own words, [he] does not seek to capture heroic glories of bygone days, but rather to demonumentalize, put unremarkable men and women on a pedestal.2

To understand Balkenhols work it helps to recognize just how rebellious his figures seemed when they appeared in the late 70s. Minimalism and Conceptual Art came to prominence at that time, the endgame of a digression where art was reduced to its most basic elements: pure ideas and pure materials. Content, narrative and even the pedestal were removed altogether and artwork sat directly on the floor. Art became an interesting academic exercise with a limited audience. Like many students of his day, Balkenhol wanted to knock art off its high horse and appeal to Everyman. But unlike his peers, Balkenhol managed to do so while reintegrating the figure into sculpture, pedestals and all. Why Im doing figural workis also partly a reaction to the rather dispassionate, rational, and very insensuous art of the 70s. It was as if art didnt or wouldnt illustrate anything, wouldnt relate anymore to what was happening externally, but only reflect its own principles and methods and in the end only illustrate itself.3

Despite this statement, Balkenhol also acknowledges just how important an influence Minimalism was on his work. While a student at Hochschule Für Bilende Künst in Hamburg, he worked closely with Ulrich Rückreim, one of Europes most influential Minimalists. Like many artists who work in wood, Balkenhols figures are often compared to folk tradition where humorous hand-sized, carved figures proliferate. While Balkenhols work is stylized (reduced to basic shapes and colors) wood becomes a very serious medium in his hands. He is a consummate craftsman, creating his works with his own hands.

We see each swiftly executed stroke of Balkenhols carving tools and can almost feel the chips flying around us as the figure takes shape. What separates this work from folk art is Balkenhols incredible facility with the medium (at a human scale no less), the speed of his execution and the simplicity of surface treatment. Although not trademark Minimalism, the work is stripped down, streamlined and focused.

Balkenhols use of color is equally straightforward, nothing is too brash or out of the ordinary. (He values, but dislikes the emotional work of German Expressionists like Ernst Kirchner and Neo-Expressionist artists such as Georg Bazelitz.) Color is applied simply in opaque shapes: pants are black, shirts are white, shoes are brown, hair is red or blonde, etc. The figures look Northern European, like Balkenhol himself, yet in reality their race is undecipherable, skin color being determined by the wood Balkenhol chooses to carve - knots, blemishes and all. (One female figures face has a knot centered on her cheek. Somehow this natural mark makes her all the more human and fascinating.)

Because of the roughly chiseled nature of his work, it is easy to envision Balkenhol in his studio experimenting with new ideas and seeking out solutions to formal problems. He will sometimes sketch figures in various poses, but mostly works directly with the wood moving quickly from one variation to the next. He seems to constantly ask himself questions. What if I tilt the head to the left How about placing one hand in a pocket, What if the knees are slightly bent Balkenhol takes an equally inquisitive approach to the issue of scale: some figures are just a bit smaller than life size, some are gigantic and some are tiny (closer to the size of dolls). Male and female figures are often represented as the same size. This constant experimentation and questioning can also be seen in his use of the pedestal: some figures tower above us on traditional columns of wood, some stand on thick planks or simple rounds sliced out of the midsection of a tree trunk, some are fitted on shelves in a corner, some stand atop saw horses and some stare directly at us, at eye level, their feet on a plinth only inches off the floor.

Ms. Mel Watkin
FCA Curator

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