Folkert de Jong

Upstream Gallery

Folkert de Jong makes anti-monuments out of Styrofoam—transitory tableaux for a culture in which the permanence and eternal values symbolized by bronze or marble are all too obviously lies. Not that de Jong is averse to using apparently anachronistic elements: His sculptures and installations clearly engage in a dialogue with traditional figurative sculpture. Yet in this dialogue everything is transformed, in part precisely by the use of fragile and vernacular materials, in part by his iconography. De Jong’s tableaux are grotesque and gothic, steeped in horror, comics, and fantasy.

In 2003 de Jong made an installation for the Prix de Rome contest that depicted a group of disparate characters gathering around a fire, surrounded by crumbling low walls, a tree stump, and a garbage can. Most of the elements were made of blue Styrofoam, supplemented by other polystyrene materials. While usually leaving the materials mostly unpainted and “pure,” de Jong added some color, notably on the figures, thus making the ensemble somewhat less abstract. A woman in a black dress with a hot pink floral pattern, sporting two axes and leering horribly, was among the most finished elements. By contrast, a male figure sipping a drink through a straw was sitting half-finished on a table, armless and with bare white legs and torso. Slumping in an armchair was a green blob-like figure who looked like the Incredible Hulk turned to fudge—or like an obese cousin of Thomas Schütte’s Große Geister (Big Spirits), 1996. A sinister horseman on a steed that still needed some work likewise looked on at the central fire, which did not really tie all the disparate elements together into an organic whole. In some ways this ensemble recalled Jeff Wall’s The Vampires’ Picnic, 1991. While Wall’s nocturnal orgy could be seen as an allegorical reflection on the vampiric qualities of photography and the medium’s uncanny transformation through digitization, de Jong assembled a gothic assortment of mutants and undead from the ruins of sculpture, setting the scene in a no-man’s land far from the squares where major sculptural groups once were erected.

For this show, de Jong reassembled the Prix de Rome installation. The gallery’s rather narrow ground floor space does not allow for a full, in-the-round display of the group, so he abandoned the central composition around the fire. Entering the gallery, one passed between fragments that had been crammed into the space as if they were in storage rather than on display: the horseman, parts of the wall, various other bits. At the far end other elements of the composition were preserved in something resembling the original constellation: the green-fudge mutant slumped in his chair, the axe-wielding psycho woman, the armless soda sipper, all gathered around the fire.

Had de Jong compromised his work by agreeing to display it under such conditions? Already at the exhibition of the Prix de Rome submissions at the GEM Museum of Contemporary Art in The Hague, the group’s integrity was broken up inasmuch as it was presented in a hallway where paths had to be maintained for visitors. At Upstream, the scattering of the elements in The Hague was complemented by compression. It almost seemed as if, by agreeing to the Amsterdam exhibition after the scandalous presentation in The Hague, de Jong has chosen to create an allegorical tale about the struggle between old-fashioned monumentality and neo-liberal flexibility.

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