There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Sculptures and Drawings”
“Niek Kemps: Recent Sculpture”
to December 3
For contemporary artists of a certain theoretical persuasion, the past is booby-trapped. As the soil and sunlight producing and sustaining their creations, history and old art function ambivalently as both source and liability. Out of the resulting tension, artists often create with great energy, but that tension sometimes produces anxiety and bitterness in their art.
Anxiety predominates in the work of German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol, whose work is now on view at the Hirshhorn. His wooden sculptures of human figures and animals are superficially appealing and are being promoted by the Hirshhorn as attractive crowd-pleasers. But while the pleasures they offer are genuine—pleasures of craft, of recognition, and, in the case of the animal works, of miniaturization—their larger significance as figural sculpture is in their reticence, their ambiguity, and their uncertainty.
The exhibition contains works in a variety of genres. There are human figures, mostly male and mostly clothed, both larger and smaller than life. There are relief panels of the heads of young men and women and a pair of monumental heads. There is a room full of miniature penguins on eye-level bases, and there are also bears and lions. Another ensemble presents miniature human figures riding on or playing with miniature animals—these also on shoulder or eye-level supports. All the works are roughly carved from wood, and many are made from the same pieces as their bases.
Just as Balkenhol’s work is deceptively pleasing, it is also deceptively simple. The figures are forcefully chiseled, almost hacked, from the wood, and the hair, eyes, lips, and clothing are brusquely painted, so that tiny areas of wood remain visible. These areas, like flickers of light, unify the surface coloristically in the way the evenly patterned chisel marks do structurally. Both provide a formal tension that makes the images oddly abstract. In this way, the sculptor undermines the strong appeal to realism implicit in figural—particularly painted figural—sculpture. And it is just this undermining, this proposal of contradictory theses for the work, that introduces on the most fundamental formal level the anxiety that pervades the show.
On the narrative level, the anxiety derives from the fact that these figures don’t seem to know who they are, and neither do viewers. Even the couple posed on carving stands in bathing suits can’t be adequately summarized by the generalization “swimmers.” Sometimes described as examples of postmodernist Everymen, as the anti-archetypal inhabitants of Generation X, or as 20th-century workers caught in an identity change from proletarians to consumers, the figures—never characters—are recognizable, but undefinable. Their gazes are bland rather than blank, their poses hesitant rather than descriptive. Yet while they are unknown—either to themselves or to the viewer—they seem intimately familiar.
Intimacy—rather than familiarity—is key to the charm of the animal figures, which undoubtedly have their roots in the tradition of German wood folk sculpture. But Balkenhol gives the tradition a postmodernist twist by combining his generic trousered and white-shirted men with animals from Rudyard Kipling and TV nature specials rather than the creatures of German forest legends. There’s a man embracing a salamander, one riding a dolphin, one sitting by a zebra, one standing on an alligator, and one with his arms and legs wrapped around a giraffe’s long neck. Their toylike scale and playfulness are endearing; they evoke a nostalgic longing for an era, personal and social, when such cross-species intimacy animated the personal fantasies of childhood or the cultural metaphors of myth.
It is myth, however, and its almost frenzied denial, that makes Balkenhol’s figural sculpture particularly so anxious and so noncommittal. In critical discussions of Balkenhol’s study with the elegant ultraminimalist Ulrich Rückriem and of his rejection of the classical figural tradition, the 19th-century civic monument tradition, and the early-20th-century German expressionist tradition, no mention is made of the Nietzschean Übermensch, whose twisted image dominated Germany a half-century ago. Balkenhol’s figures, it seems to me, are that Superman’s shadow, shape-shifting out of the Aryan superhero just as his figures are hacked out of the poplar, the pine, the oak, and the beech. This mythic, shape-shifting potential is explicit in Balkenhol’s Three Hybrids (1995)—a set of three male figures with animal heads: a bull, a lion, and a bird. In spite of their modern costumes, the figures step directly out of the world of legend and myth, where transformations of form and identity are normal occurrences. But all of Balkenhol’s figures possess these properties, making identity a contemporary social dilemma, partly because of the way the essence of the wood block always remains visible in the bodies carved from them, and partly because of their resolute anonymity.
In Germany, in the light of modern history and contemporary events, these figures should have special resonance, drawing as they would on dissolved cultural memories and a visual environment rich in medieval and Renaissance religious sculpture as well as folk art. But even for Hirshhorn visitors they can embody the familiar unease experienced at our particular intersection of history and identity—one producing a personality complex of which the German is an archetype, not an exotic specimen. It won’t be surprising, then, if Balkenhol’s anxious, anti-idealistic figures become as idealized in our time as the heroic models he has rejected.
If anxiety is Balkenhol’s response to the dangers lurking in history and traditional art, there is bitterness in the work of Dutch conceptual artist Niek Kemps, whose sculptural interventions have temporarily taken over the permanent collection galleries of the Corcoran. Kemps operates in the tradition pioneered in the ’60s by Marcel Broodthaers. The Belgian examined the assumptions that drove art-collecting in the 18th and 19th centuries and the ways those collections were displayed. His Musées and Decors combined surrealist wit and an incisive sense of objects’ psychological resonances with an austere historical understanding that exposed the false consciousness behind many past uses of art. Broodthaers’ disappointment at the loss of old art idols was balanced by a buoyant and playful formal elegance in his sculptures and a delicacy in his didacticism.
In Kemps’ work, by contrast, disappointment at the loss of traditional art options seems to have turned to resentment. Kemps’ sculptures, while often stylish, seem belligerent, and there’s a disconcerting literalism to the conceptual frame he created for his show. That frame is a 19th-century formal garden circuit, organized in a sequence of episodes intended to function like garden vistas as the visitor passes through them.
To create the circuit, Kemps has rearranged the paintings and sculptures in the Corcoran’s permanent collection, removing many of them to provide empty galleries in which only his sculptures stand or hang. A number of paintings needed by museum staff to carry on their public art-education tasks have been rehung in the Gallery One spaces as a Salon des Refusées. Integrated with the idea of the garden circuit are such themes as collaboration, the house for art, the one-man museum, and the hidden image—all related in some way to the 19th-century garden model. In addition, Kemps investigates such dualisms as open/closed, inside/outside, and transparency/opacity. The intense artifice that characterizes Kemps’ works legitimately derives from the garden idea, but the irritation and bafflement the works produce seems to fall far from that original inspiration. Gardens, after all, are for pleasure, leisure entertainments that charm and seduce by stimulating the senses and the mind with the delights of novelty.
Kemps seems to invert these concepts, replacing nature’s lyricism with skeletal geometric forms called “houses for art,” or with aggressive, high-tech minimalist forms that assault rather than enchant the viewer. This process begins in the first two galleries with the intimidating wall wraparound Parenthesis III (1991), made of green glass and iron, and the soft-porn teaser Sans Titre—La Belle Porte de Voile (Untitled—The Bride Lifts the Veil) (1988), and continues in the next with a forest-pool reference—an incomplete circle made of lacquered wood and glass called La Forêt est un État d’Âme (The Forest is a State of Soul) (1985). This sequence of glittery works is followed by a gallery lined with some of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of humans and animals in motion, in whose midst have been placed three mysterious, flat, black rectangular shapes that reportedly refer to systems of storing information.
In two galleries where Kemps has retained Corcoran paintings, he has selected them for their viewpoints and for the way they describe natural or domestic sites that relate to the themes and dualities that structure his garden circuit. In a third, where 19th-century genre paintings have been retained, the artist has placed three of his fiberglass and polyester structures, together called House for Sculpture (1995). Inside them, one of Kemps’ artist-collaborators, Allen Ruppersberg, has installed a table of books, crates of books, and a tape player. The books contain reproductions of black-and-white movie stills, the crates, labeled “Remainders,” contain more copies of the books, and the tapes play music relating to the movies and to the genre paintings on the wall. For Ruppersberg and Kemps, movies are 20th-century genre.
Much is made of Kemps’ collaboration with other artists, but with the exception of Ruppersberg, they are minimal. Lawrence Weiner offered the phrase “Sitting Outside of the Heat of the Sun” to be stenciled on one set of “houses,” and Ettore Spalletti and Herbert Brandl provided minimalist, monochromatic panels to be set in the two others. In the museum’s atrium, Corcoran School of Art students silk-screened Kemps’ designs onto the glass floor panels that originally filtered light into the basement studios.
A most significant collaboration, however, is with the Corcoran museum itself. Turning over its major gallery spaces to an artist, especially one with no special familiarity with the collection or its tradition, was a courageous and risky act—good avant-garde practice in fact. Studying Kemps’ work in reproductions, I can understand why he seemed a good choice for such a proposal. Many of his sculptures (though none included in this show) have a sophisticated beauty that articulates space and light in compelling and provocative ways, and the Corcoran’s galleries would seem to be an appropriate site for such work.
It may be, however, that his art functions best in reproduction, for the Corcoran installation itself looks more intriguing in the catalog photos than it is in actual fact. And while this may in some devious conceptual way reflect ideas about vistas and perspectives in 19th-century gardens, it’s a disappointment to visitors who expect that by entering the garden—or exhibition—their pleasures will be amplified in the actual presence of nature, albeit tamed—or of art. But because of the conceptual artist’s fears of the false values embedded in art’s seductive powers, we are offered instead the image of a garden in which the wanderer’s disappointment, frustrations, and longings destroy nature’s compensations—or art as nature’s surrogate. This may be one strategy for avoiding the traps laid in art by history and tradition, but it keeps artists and viewers locked in the isolation of rejection. Perhaps if Kemps had included more of his own works—had been more generous with the specimens he offered in his “garden”—the sense of loss and limitation wouldn’t be so great. As it is, the Corcoran galleries seem deserted—both by art and by visitors—and that doesn’t seem a very good solution to the problems facing contemporary art—many of which have grown out of the contradictions and dangers Kemps and Balkenhol are examining.