After visiting documenta 5 in 1972 while in his teens, Stephan Balkenhol decided to become a sculptor. He then studied at Hamburg Hochschule für Bildende Künste from 1976 to 1982. In the early 1980s he successfully turned his focus to a form of sculpture that might have seemed anachronistic at a time when German art was dominated by the minimalism of Ulrich Rückriem, who was in fact one of his teachers, and the raw expressionism of Georg Baselitz. The German tradition of figurative wood carving had previously been reinvented by German expressionism. He produced numerous self-portraits in two and three dimensions, full-length and busts, alongside contemporary men and women shown larger or smaller than nature, clothed or nude, sometimes in series, and animals, such as this pair of seals.
The bases and figures are carved from the same block of wood. The tool marks remain visible where the wood was roughly chopped and chiselled, with chips left hanging. Balkenhol prefers to use green wood, which generates cracks that widen over time. The theme of nature tamed by the artist is thus countered by ongoing changes in the living material of the tree trunk: it remains solid and the sculpture thus risks splitting over the years.
Like most of Balkenhol’s works, the seals are painted (except for the bases), gesturing to polychrome religious statues of the medieval period and to children’s toys, combining both high art and popular culture. The two red balls, one large, one small, at different heights, stand out in space in an ironic reference to abstract sculpture. The juggling seals are an ironic illustration of Balkenhol’s overarching artistic project, which treads a narrow path between tradition and modernity, banality and refinement.
Guy Tosatto (ed.), Stephan Balkenhol, exh. cat. Grenoble, Musée de Grenoble, Arles, Actes Sud, 2010.
Matthias Winzen and Harriet Zilch, Stephan Balkenhol, exh. cat. Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Duisburg, MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Salzburg, Museum der Moderne Salzburg Rupertinum, Cologne, Snoeck, 2006.
Catherine Lepdor, Patrick Schaefer and Jörg Zutter, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts Lausanne, Zürich, Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art, Geneva, Banque Paribas (Suisse) S.A., 1998: 124-125.