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A Sculptor Who Likes to Go Against the Grain

Stephan Balkenhol works in wood, not because of its ties to folk art, but simply because it's there. It's a niche he's carved out on his own.

December 15, 1996|Kristine McKenna | 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.

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