New York

Stephan Balkenhol

Stephan Balkenhol revives the medieval genre of painted, hand-carved wooden sculpture in order to create contemporary allegories. Like religious figures in cathedrals, his Urfiguren are public monuments with a moral message and a startling, peculiarly morbid vivacity. In Untitled (Three Small Men) [all works 1997], the figures strike poses that represent “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” The parallel Untitled (Three Large Men) shows three good men. The first stands at attention with his arms at his sides and his legs pressed tightly together; the second at ease, his legs apart, his arms bent at the elbow; and the third, completely relaxed, one hand in his pocket. (The facial expressions show a parallel shift—from obedient attention through detached recognition to matter-of-fact acknowledgment of an invisible authority figure.) All are dressed in white shirts with open collar and black pants.

It is the dramatic contrast between black and white that makes for their morbidity (there is clearly an echo of the German Expressionist woodcut in them). The precarious bridgelike structure on which the three large men stand, and the discrepancy between the three small figures and their comparatively huge wooden pedestals—ominous pedestals emblematic of society’s power to fix us in “place”—only adds to this effect. The three small men seem to symbolize the ordinary German citizen who remained blind to the evils of the Nazi state; the three large men, the new German who refuses unquestioning obedience to any authority. In other words, Balkenhol sets up a contrast between past and present generations of Germans. Like Georg Baselitz, who also revives medieval painted-wood sculpture, Balkenhol attempts to deal with his country’s unhappy past—but with a difference. Balkenhol is of a younger generation and sees a future for Germany in its relaxed, knowledgeable youth.

Balkenhol’s human figures with animal heads and animal figures are also allegorical symbols of virtue and vice, in the best medieval tradition. His rendering of the relationship between man and woman is medieval in style, the man dominating the much smaller woman and the pair facing us as naked as Adam and Eve. (This work and its companion pieces also employ expressionist black and white.) As monuments, Balkenhol’s works are an important democratic alternative to the grandiose, ideologically freighted public sculptures that dominated the once tyrannical states of Eastern Europe. Balkenhol wants monuments to the common man, who may seem banal and unheroic but is free and independent—the figure in Untitled (Man on Bench), with his casually crossed legs and naked torso, is typical. Balkenhol’s figures have an affinity with those of John Ahearn, but they are more Modernist, however subliminally—his pedestals are Constructivist/Suprematist in their geometry, and in combining the geometrical with the gestural (the marks of his carving are in effect “painterly” gestures) he achieves a synthesis of Modernist modes. Balkenhol’s works have an affinity with those of Baselitz, whose figures also rebel against the mass-produced, aesthetically undifferentiated heroic statues erected in public spaces throughout East Germany. But Balkenhol’s figures are less self-glorifying and more authentically heroic than Baselitz’s antiheroes, who still show, in whatever tragic form, the vainglory of the old authoritarian German state. This is why Balkenhol’s wooden figures seem organically alive where Baselitz’s broken bodies convey a living death.

Donald Kuspit