stephan balkenhol solo exhibition at kunstmuseum ravensburg, germany

12 April 2014
This year's Summer Exhibition at the Kunstmuseum is of works by one of Germany's most famous sculptors - Stephan Balkenhol. The artist was born in 1957 and studied under Ulrich Rückreim in the 1970s. He initially experimented with a minimalist formal idiom, before focussing consistently on figurative sculpture again in the 1980s, as one of the few artists of his generation.

When his wooden figures in their black trousers and white shirts appeared on the scene in the 1980s, they surprised the whole art world. At the time, many regarded figurative sculpture as something from another era. As a result of the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, the image of man had been devalued with the result that the human figure had almost completely disappeared from art up to the end of the 1970s. Stephan Balkenhol rehabilitated the image of man, so to speak out of nothing, taking as his orientation the human body in Antiquity. Like other artists of his generation, for example Katharina Fritsch or Thomas Schütte, he thus brought the human figure back into art. By regaining the human figure, Stephan Balkenhol also called back into play the body as the centre of individual perception. Over the past three decades he has produced not only reliefs and drawings, but also a whole population of human and animal figures - mostly in different types of wood, but also in bronze.

Far be it from this artist to use the direct and undistorted gesture of the Expressionists. The male and female figures that Balkenhol often hews from one single log are tranquil, at peace with themselves and unperturbed by emotional states; they are essential depictions of a timeless reality, yet tangibly present, nevertheless. To quote Balkenhol: "With my standing men I wanted to create something that was like a corrective in an era cluttered with messages and ciphers. We are being constantly beset by the media and by images crammed with all sorts of contents. All of them want to sell or communicate something to us. I wanted to make an image of man that has no clear message, that is just there, more like a ‘break', a hiatus."

As they are influenced by the conceptual approaches of the 1970s, Balkenhol's minimalist human images also point, not least, to the perception of the viewer. "To a certain extent, I offer stories without telling them to the end." When confronted with his figures, we are thrown back on our own corporeality and, like in a mirror, receive our projections and begin to reflect on them, at best. Through being rooted very much in the here and now, and through their autonomous existence, these figures also provoke the question of the direction in which we want to point our thinking and our actions.

In the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Ravensburg, Stephan Balkenhol is not only showing older works, he has also created some new ones. Referencing the spatial context on the second floor and in combination with the arched ceiling, his wooden figurations form an impressive overall composition. Rooms play an important role for this artist. He questions them by means of deliberate arrangements and at the same time creates new connections between figure and viewer, and between the figures themselves. The thematic focal point of his Ravensburg exhibition is the relationship between man and woman.

For example, his 2013 work Kugelmenschen on the second floor points to the ancient myth of the spherical creatures in Plato's Symposium. According to that myth, man and woman were originally one spherically shaped being. Out of fear that these spherical creatures could surpass the gods, Zeus decided to weaken them by cutting them in two, a man and a woman. Since then, the divided halves have longed for their lost unity, the force of attraction between them being called Eros.

Using his pictorial fantasy Balkenhol has "resolved" this mythological heritage into a new image that he has "solidified" in wood. On the floor are two parts of a formerly complete sphere; laid inside each individual half is a naked male and a naked female figure, like intarsia.

The exhibition runs from 12 April until 24 August 2014.

Stephan Balkenhol at Kunstmuseum Ravensburg.