Cincinnati

Stephan Balkenhol

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

There’s no divorcing the figure from the base in Stephan Balkenhol’s sculptures. If these ordinary guys, his most frequent subjects, were plunked directly on the floor, they would disappear in the crowd. As it is, they acquire a quirky prestige by virtue of their elevation, hefted up on stacks of thick spools or sidled onto flatbeds perched on wooden sawhorses, slouched in single file as if walk the plank.

Balkenhol is entangling us in the skeins of sculpture’s history, and maybe in politics as well. As Brancusi moved from Romania to France, he refined and reduced his portraits of birds and humans to impeccably smooth, compact abstractions. His bases became compilations of hacked and stacked blocks, intended to energize the idealized effigies they bore aloft. Balkenhol’s supports bear this same reverence—the elevation of the objects that stride them, their meaning and forms exchanging energies, whimsically, at times. But the ad hoc support attached to Balkenhol’s laconic personifications implies a text. Whereas the Minimalists discarded the podium entirely for its presumptive distancing of the object from the observer, Balkenhol (whose tutor was the Minimalist sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem) reinstates the base but often carves it from the same block of the wood as the sculpture, so that the work is both elevated and standing directly on the floor.

Balkenhol is re-creating the modest circumstances of the workshop, as in Nanni di Banco’s relief of the sculptor’s workshop, 1411-13, in which guild members with chisels and mallets and carved statues propped on sawhorses indicate the status of the artist as a worker in a market economy. Balkenhol rejects both idealization and realism, the traditional raisons d’être of figurative sculpture. Bowing to history, he circles back to recycle and update it. His full-length figures, such as Untitled (Three Large Men), 1997, or Man Lying on a Platform, 1998, are so prosaic in posture that references to reclining Roman river gods or to Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” are a stretch. (Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe would be a more apt comparison.) Balkenhol’s relief portraits and compact male and female torsos are reminiscent in form and size to classical medallions and monumental nudes, but their chipped contours constitute a rueful commentary on the idealization of finish. The hacked surfaces would make Tilman Riemenschneider, the German Renaissance sculptor, wince and today’s Ursula von Rydingsvard grin, but for most of us it bespeaks a strategy that mocks refinement and asserts the artist’s judicious presence.

His men (and a few women) look past us but focus on nothing; they are empty of inquiry or introspection. They are either miniature, as in Three Men on a Sculptured Pedestal 2000, gargantuan, or shortly under life-size at four feet plus. These are not mannequins and nothing about them suggests fashion or function. Their white shirts, black pants, and clunky brown shoes are neutral (although they now have become Balkenhol’s signature). They are “values,” not colors; it is the raw cedar, poplar, and Douglas fir of the faces, hands, and torsos that carry chromatic meaning. These figures represent a labor force, dependable and often anonymous, that has been accorded a level of recognition.

This was a quiet exhibition. It had a doggedness, a surprising tenderness, and a curious mock sobriety teased with humor. And it insisted on a certain plebeian dignity of the artisan in the workshop.

Joan Seeman Robinson