Stephan Balkenhol

Johnen & Schottle

Stephan Balkenhol’s recent exhibition consisted of 12 small female nudes carved from a single block of wawa wood. The figure and pedestal are all of a piece, and seem to be worked from inside the wood—a technique that recalls his 57 penguins from 1991. Additionally, there are two round pictures, two drawings, and a “headless man” that are the same size as the nudes but in which the figures are fully clothed. (The headless man may be a reference to Dionysus of Paris, the third-century French martyr, who came to Paris from Rome and walked to St. Denis with his head in his hand after being decapitated.) Together with three additional life-size female nudes, these works offer a comprehensive view into Balkenhol’s world.

This world is varied, but somehow so closed off that one can speak of a family resemblance among the different sculptures. It is not direct commonalities so much as related characteristics that recur; for example, Balkenhol’s use of very small male and female figures: the emphasis and development of body, figure, face, head. The work leaves us with an impression of physical and spiritual loneliness and the sense that these human figures have a soul, lending them a higher purpose. There is the question of style, of the influence of his teacher, Ulrich Rückriem, and his method of allowing simple forms to appear from the raw materials as form-giving factors; there is also the issue of an Expressionist heritage, of realistic expression, of formal and thematic reduction. Finally, there is the problem of the relationship between the sculptures and language—Balkenhol’s spectrum is strongly focused on the figurative image.

One sees throughout these sculptures the taming of a raw material—wood—by a direct, emotional, and positive controlling idea. It is expressed through the life of these wooden beings, and their desire to live among us in the real physical world rather than as abstract, material art objects. The friction between these two positions is grounded in the experience of a conceptual, intermediary reality in which the physical, biological, social, and historical reality of contemporary mankind is manifested.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.