Stephan Balkenhol pares down figurative work in search of a universal identity and charm, writes Yenni Kwok
German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol has made a name by depicting average men and women. His artworks - mostly wood sculptures, but also wood reliefs - portray the anonymous 'everyman', the so-called familiar strangers who have no specific stories to tell.
Balkenhol's art is unusual. Throughout history, people have been fascinated by idealised images of extraordinary stories. We worship statues of gods and goddesses, paintings of daring heroes and beautiful muses, photographs of flawless models. The extreme opposite can be equally seductive. The low-down and dirty aspects of society have also inspired plenty of art.
Balkenhol's art picks up a familiar yet obscure aspect of humankind. His rough-hewn portrayals of everyman and everywoman, each chiselled from a single block of wood, celebrate the humble, plain-looking nobodies abstracted from any particular contexts.
'When I started with my figurative sculpture, I tried to avoid any illustration of social or sociological, psychological or representative contexts,' Balkenhol says. 'I wanted to make quite an 'open' image, almost minimalistic, empty of any message but the figure itself. This should be no one, but could be anyone. It was never a portrait. It invites the person who looks at it to identify [with it].'
For his exhibition at Art Statements Gallery, the 50-year-old has created eight new wood reliefs and 22 charcoal drawings. Like his wood figures, the men and women in the reliefs wear nonchalant facial expressions, giving nothing away. These reliefs - 'fictive portraits', as Balkenhol calls them - can evoke both traditional and more modern portraiture.
Balkenhol applies the concepts and techniques of his sculptures to his wood reliefs. His treatment of the surface is raw; the skin is left unpainted. As the material retains its organic nature, it also brings out the unpretentious charm of the ordinary, bland-looking people.
The subjects' deadpan expressions give the portraits a hint of whimsy. They might be made of wood, but they're certainly not wooden.
His charcoal drawings (often based on imagination, because he seldom works with models) consist partly of sketches for his reliefs and sculptures, and partly of standalone drawings. They also echo the innocent, spontaneous essence of his sculptural works.
Balkenhol, who began to make figurative sculptures in 1983, has earned praise for reintroducing human figures to contemporary art and revitalising an art form that has been largely ignored in recent decades. Once a central part of the European artistic tradition, figurative or mimetic sculpture has been relatively neglected since minimal and conceptual artists entered the mainstream in the 1960s.
Yet Balkenhol started off on a different path. Between 1976 and 1982, he studied at the Hamburg School of Fine Arts, known as a stronghold of minimalist and conceptualist art. His teacher was German conceptual sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem, one of the artists who broke from the figurative origin of sculpture and became an influential figure in European minimalism. The raw surfaces of Balkenhol's artworks resemble the rough texture of Ruckriem's stone sculptures.
The artist credits his interest in human figures to his family background. 'Maybe my Catholic childhood showed me what kind of power and presence figurative sculpture may have - for example, as representation of saints in Christian churches,' he says.
Balkenhol, who divides his time between the French town of Meisenthal and Karlsruhe in Germany, where he teaches at an art academy, says that human sculptures have been around for millennia, from ancient Egypt to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the present day.
'I think figurative, mimetic representation has always been used as a tool to illustrate religious, political or representative themes,' he says. 'It was never free and autonomous. Maybe now there's a chance to do this, because the tradition has been broken for some time.'
Although Balkenhol portrays common people, his figures are never life-sized. They're either smaller or larger. A pair of his bronze sculptures entitled Mann + Frau, for example, loom five metres high in front of Hamburg's central library. Yet, regardless of their size, the expressions on the figures' faces give little away.
Balkenhol isn't interested in telling stories. 'The visual world is full of storytellers - TV, magazines, advertising, propaganda,' he says.
'I'm looking for some kind of emptiness and freedom. That's why I avoid messages, strong expressions and gestures, and why I'm trying to find an open expression from which you can imagine any kind of mood.'
His words echo what French philosopher Francois Jullien says in his book In Praise of Blandness: that the bland provides an infinite opening into the breadth of human expression and taste. Balkenhol's preference for neutrality is liberating in this sense, standing aloof from the artistic dichotomy of idealism and gloomy negativity.
'It's true that I'm not interested in cynicism nor in idealism - perhaps in scepticism,' he says. As he does in his art, Balkenhol prefers to remain noncommittal.
Stephan Balkenhol - New Work, Art Statements Gallery, 5 Mee Lun St, Central, Mon-Fri, 11am-7pm; Sat 11am-6pm, free. Ends Oct 13