Folkert de Jong

Since 2001, Folkert de Jong has been working with Styrofoam and polyurethane foam, the now common insulation materials produced by Dow Chemical—whose laboratories also, of course, produced napalm and dioxin. This dubious backdrop, together with the materials’ hazards to health and environment, contrasts deeply with the institution’s characteristically innocent blue or pink coloring. Although lightweight and even vulnerable, these foams will probably outlast bronze and marble. De Jong deliberately engages such contradictions. Confronting the materials’ positive poles (friendly colors, lightness) with dark and complex social, historical, and political subject matter, the artist creates life-size tableaux in which figures derived from comics, horror movies, art, and history often converge in sinister ways.

For his first substantial museum show, “Circle of Trust: Selected Works, 2001–2009,” a representative selection of work from 2001 to the present was assembled, including sixty-eight drawings shown for the first time. De Jong’s most recent installation piece, created especially for the Groninger Museum, is titled Infinite Silence; The Way Things Are and How They Became Things, 2009, and consists, like its title, of three rather isolated elements: pallets with stacks of church bells; five stately statues of Abraham Lincoln standing side by side with wagon wheels standing upright in between them; and poles of wood, like leftovers from a construction site. All are cast in polyurethane, with the addition of pigments of unnatural, often fluorescent hues. Both the bells (for which an original seventeenth-century mold was used) and the statesman represent turbulent histories; the scrap could refer to the potential to construct and manipulate such historical narratives. The use of repetition within each group of objects underlined the eerie but visually powerful effect of the images. But the artist also wants the repetition to function as a reference to the multiple interpretations of such icons and to the indeterminacy of historical meaning in a wider sense—an idea that is central to almost all of de Jong’s works, but that has not, until now, been staged so blatantly.

Compared to the overwhelming Iceman Cometh, 2001, de Jong’s first venture with Styrofoam (also on view), the newest installation is decidedly more tranquil, more introverted. In fact, the artist had already abandoned the bizarre, the sinister, and the grotesque with the series “Les Saltimbanques,” 2007, created with Picasso’s portraits of melancholic acrobats, musicians, and clowns in mind. Suffused with a pervasive ennui, these outcasts prefigured the “infinite silence” that seems to prevail with de Jong’s subjects now, and which entice the viewer to focus on their materiality. Quite rightly so, for in the nine years under review in this show, the artist’s ever-increasing virtuosity with his noxious “anti-material” is manifest. Moreover, he has become a precise stage director, eschewing the unfinished quality of his earlysculptures. In this light, the dozens of marker drawings displayed along with the other works here seemed somewhat out of place: The artist almost obsessively draws scenes from history, including compositional studies for the installations that are on view; their exploratory character contrasts with the high finish of de Jong’s recent sculpture and was abundantly offset by the polished orchestration of the show as a whole. With the increasing use of paint and molds, de Jong’s Styrofoam has become less visible over the years, yet it continues to be the main protagonist of his work.

Saskia van der Kroef