A Sculptor Who Likes to Go Against the Grain

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

German artist Stephan Balkenhol looks startled if you ask him a question that's remotely personal--he looks as though it's never happened before. Reserved and soft-spoken, the 39-year-old artist is as inscrutable as his work. A sculptor who creates solitary figures carved from wood, Balkenhol crafts people who do nothing and stare blankly back at the viewer with facial expressions so resolutely neutral they verge on aggression.

In L.A. for four weeks to make a body of work slated to go on view Tuesday at Regen Projects, Balkenhol has lots to accomplish in a month and spends the bulk of his time in a studio rented by the gallery for him in Culver City. A tiny white room that's empty but for the artists' tools, a boombox, one bottle of water and a few banged-up folding chairs, it seems hardly commensurate with Balkenhol's standing in the art world.

The subject of a traveling, mid-career survey organized last year by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Balkenhol has exhibited regularly throughout Europe since 1983 and has been a professor at the Kunstakademie in Karlsruhe, Germany, for four years. He's far too modest to mention any of this, of course, nor is he terribly keen on talking about his background.

Born in Fritzlar, Germany, Balkenhol has three older brothers and says, "My parents were both teachers who had an interest in art, so I was exposed to it from an early age.

"My father was active in the French resistance during World War II, so he had lots of friends in France, and I remember going there as a child on holiday and seeing all the cathedrals and public monuments," adds Balkenhol, who settled in the French village of Meisenthal two years ago.

In 1963, the Balkenhol family moved to Luxembourg, and five years later settled in Kassel, Germany, where the artist spent his teenage years. At the age of 14 he immersed himself in Dada poetry, which inspired him to begin experimenting with sculpture and collage. Today he dismisses those early efforts as "not so much about art--it was more a way for me to access other realities."

Balkenhol's interest in art really caught fire when he was 15 and saw Documenta, the international art fair sponsored by the Friedericianum Museum that's held every five years in Kassel. The 1972 Documenta--generally acknowledged as one of the best on record--was organized by the brilliant Swiss curator Harald Szeemann and included Paul Thek, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, among many others. Because his older brother worked at the fair as a ticket-taker, Balkenhol was able to spend much of his summer there and found himself particularly taken with an international survey of Pop, Photo-Realism and sculpture presented in the "Realism" pavilion.

"Claes Oldenburg's 'Mouse Museum' was in that show and I liked it very much," recalls the artist, who began carving human heads out of wood at the age of 16. "I was making Pop works early on, but that stopped once I got to art school."

In 1976, Balkenhol enrolled at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunst, a university in Hamburg where he studied with Minimalist sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem.

"Minimalism and Conceptualism were the dominant styles when I was in school, and though I appreciated them for their attempt to reduce art to its basic components and make it as clear as possible, there was something missing for me.

"Modernism has always been afflicted with a fear of doing anything old-fashioned, so obviously that meant the human figure had to go. Nonetheless, that's what I found myself gravitating towards," says the artist, who graduated with a master's degree in art education in 1982. "Ruckriem was a good teacher for me because he started out as a figurative artist, then moved in the direction of abstraction. He was a Minimalist, but because of his beginning, I felt he understood the figure."

Of his decision to focus on sculpture, Balkenhol says, "I needed to do something with my hands, something physical, and I like the presence sculpture has." As to how he acquired the skills central to his art-making practice, traditional woodworking technique wasn't part of most art schools' curriculum in the '70s, so Balkenhol taught himself.

"I went into a shop, found out which tools did what, and that was it," he says. "I don't use models, nor do I work from photos--I just come into the room and begin. I never use assistants because it's easier to do it myself than to try to make someone understand what I want. When I feel I don't know where to go, I stop or work slowly, and if something strange happens, that becomes part of the piece.

"As to who these people are that I keep making, they're all between their 20s and 40s, and they're not excited. I don't find them ironic, although I think they have an element of humor. I'm working on one here I think will be funny," he says, gesturing to a nearby hunk of wood. "It has a fish in it. I want them to be iconic, but it's not my intention that they all be the same--that just happens. This single figure, standing and not doing anything, keeps appearing."

Actually, there's more than that to Balkenhol's sculptural vocabulary. In 1983, he began sculpting animals, and this new direction led to the ambitious 1991 project "57 Penguins." An installation composed of exactly that, the piece is now in the permanent collection of Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art.

"I began making animals because I was looking for another way to reflect the world," says Balkenhol, who occasionally makes figures combining human and animal parts. "With the penguins, I thought the piece should reflect the fact that they live in colonies, and I made 57 because that's the year I was born. I didn't spend much time at the zoo staring at penguins to prepare for that piece, and though I took some photos, what I try to do is re-create things--to see something, then imagine how it works.

"I rarely reproduce an object or thing that's already been designed, because doing that takes the work too close to the realm of toys," says the artist, who recently completed a work involving 10 dancing couples on individual pedestals. "There's a critique of my work I occasionally get in Europe which makes the case that it's too cute. I don't think they're cute. I would add, however, that it's not bad to enjoy something, and if you do enjoy something, that doesn't mean it's simple."

The quality of cuteness some critics feel hovers a bit too closely to Balkenhol's work has much to do with the fact that he works in wood--a material freighted with folk art connotations. "The reason I work in wood isn't because I'm drawn to its associations with folk art--I use it because it's easily available and you can make anything out of it. For me, it's not so important that it's wood, nor does the kind of wood it is concern me--I use everything from African wood [for the series in progress] to pine."

Though comparisons have been made between his figures and the roughly hewn wood sculptures of German artists Georg Baselitz and A.R. Penck, Balkenhol says, "I don't like that work very much because it's too easy. Baselitz has a big collection of African sculptures which his approach to sculpture seems to draw from. Sure, I enjoy looking at African sculpture, but it has little to do with what I'm doing."

Exactly what he is doing, however, is something Balkenhol has no interest in explaining.

"I try to make the work as open as possible so it's not about one specific thing. Yes it's about the body, but it's also about the figure, appearance, the material, the process, space--many things," he says.

"It's important to have artists doing strange things nobody can understand because in a way everything is settled, and we need the disruption of chaotic new things."

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STEPHAN BALKENHOL, Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood. Dates: Opens Tuesday. On view Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ends Jan. 25. Phone: (310) 276-5424.

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