Stephan Balkenhol

Johnen + Schöttle

The sight of Stephan Balkenhol’s 57 penguins is overwhelming: the smell that (temporarily) emanates from them is peculiarly fishy, originating in the wood. The birds—mostly alone, sometimes in twos, occasionally with an egg—are on pedestals of various heights, roughly at the viewer’s eye level. And they assume all the positions that penguins are known to or thought to take on land. Many of them are upright, using their stiff tail feathers as supports, a few are prone; others, peering sideways, down, or back, raise a wing in penguin fashion. Here, as in nature, the sexes are the same color, and it looks as if this penguin colony has some sort of human resemblance and is actually more than just a general assembly, in wood, of flightless birds whose internal communication by body language we can witness.

Formally, the 57 penguins are a hermetic unit, and their composite picture has an enormous visual intensity. Color, similarity, repetition, variation, a playing with things both familiar and alien, with nearness and distance, with motion and immobility, with multiplicity in unity, supply the basic tenor for the infrastructure of Balkenhol’s innovative sculptural language. This diction combines popular expressions with modern structures and techniques, as in the work of Balkenhol’s teacher, Ulrich Rückriem. For as simple and realistic as these sculptures may appear, they have a complex existence behind their facade. On a metalevel, we see that Balkenhol’s penguins represent a tight concentration of sensations, conceptions, memories, and feelings. These elements unmistakably stand for what this artist has long been seeking: an immediate, sensual, and positive approach to the world, to culture, and to people. Balkenhol dreams into the penguins, as it were. They provide him with an image of something black and white with a bit of yellow and allow him to combine his realistic method with a conceptual transcendance of reality. His medium is wood—in this case wawa wood, a pale-yellow, lightweight wood from the West African equatorial jungle, normally used in plywood and veneers. Balkenhol, after weeks of observing penguins at the zoo, quickly carves his birds. They always emerge from the pedestal and bend one part of it. He then applies color thinly as a form of painting, which allows the material—or even the materiality—to peer through. The result looks like a balancing act between precise, realistic rendering of his subject, and the transcendence and sensual rendering of that observation.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.