Double Identity

Stephan Balkenhol
German, born 1957
Double Identity Figure
Poplar, oak, and paint
238 x 220 x 93 cm
Gift of the New York Contemporary Art Acquisitions Committee of American Friends of the Israel Museum
© 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Accession number: B03.0808
Photo © IMJ, by Meidad Suchowolski

Since the 1980s, Stephan Balkenhol has been known primarily for his almost two-dimensional sculptures and reliefs of human and animal figures carved in wood and then painted (apart from the face and hands). His use of a traditional medium and technique echoes medieval woodcarving and the folk art of Eastern Europe. The rough surfaces and chisel marks expose the movements of the artist's tools, and the rapidity with which he creates a work from one block of wood, with no corrections, infuses it with vitality and spontaneity. Although his work relates to a monumental art - the Greco-Roman tradition of figurative sculpture, and a sense of eternality and peace derived from ancient Egypt - his figures represent ordinary people.
With their gestureless posture and disengaged gaze, Balkenhol's modest figures lack identity and personal markers. In his intentional avoidance of symbolic and narrative meanings, the figures seem to be simultaneously distant and close, like familiar strangers who pass through our lives every day. Double Identity Figure may hint at self-examination in a slightly distorted mirror or even at inner conflicts splitting the figure. The ironic title relates to the division into two identities, so characterless and similar that the uniqueness of both is blurred. Not only does it seem that the figure doesn't have a double identity, it doesn't seem to have any real identity at all. Thus it plays with viewers and their tendency to give a unique narrative to works of art and especially to figurative sculpture.

The Israel Museum, Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005