Hirshhorn Museum PresentsWhimsical German Sculptor

Acclaimed in Europe, Stephan Balkenhol has first major US show

GERMAN artist Stephan Balkenhol defies the notion that contemporary sculpture is bulbous, abstract, or far removed from reality.

Carving figures from a variety of woods and using a limited palette of paints, Balkenhol creates three-dimensional objects that are simple and well, ordinary.

A collection of this young sculptor's work, now on display at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, depicts the common man and woman, lifelike in their poses, expressionless in their gazes.

The human figures are free-standing - from several inches high to eight feet tall. Others form reliefs that resemble enormous coins in which single profiles of heads and shoulders are carved into circular wood plaques. Large male and female figures are repeated in four-part panels. And huge busts rest on equally large stools.

There is an eeriness to Balkenhol's individual pieces, especially when viewed in the cool silence of a white-walled, cement-floored gallery. ''Man with Head Under His Arm,'' shows a perfectly proportioned torso holding its own decapitated head. Seen in great numbers, as they are showcased in the Hirshhorn show, many of his sculptures take on a ''Twilight Zone'' quality, with monotonous variations on the same theme of deadpan faces, and motionless bodies in nondescript clothing.

Balkenhol's medium can be somewhat paradoxical. The woods he uses in many of his figures both serve to reinforce the reality of the pieces and remind that they are simulations. The exposed skin of his men and women show prominent ''beauty marks'' - actually the natural knots and splits in the wood.

Contemporary artists from George Segal to Christo have long known the shock value of putting their own work in the unlikeliest of public places. Several years ago, Balkenhol displayed one of his lifelike eight-foot figures on a pedestal in the middle of the Thames River. Londoners found it all a bit too unnerving. One passerby even jumped in to ''save'' the man's life, only to find that he had to be rescued from the water while the man he tried to save simply stared straight ahead, unflinching.

Balkenhol is at his best when he is whimsical, and after all those stone-faced people, he offers a welcomed break with a host of delightful animal sculptures. While the expressionless man dressed in a white button-down shirt and black pants is back, he's doing the most improbable things. In one sculpture, he is standing on top of two crocodiles; in another he is sitting on a giraffe, with his arms and legs wrapped around the animal's neck; in a third, he is on the ground wrestling with one of three lions. There is a sense of playfulness, not danger.

''Three Hybrids, 1995'' is a perfect wrap-up of the show. Three male torsos topped separately by the head of a cow, a lion, and a bird combine the artist's realism and whimsy. That the animals have taken on the same blank stares of the humans is a bit discomforting.

Balkenhol is one of a number of rising transatlantic talents who have been acclaimed in Europe, but are relatively unknown to Americans.

Neal Benezra, the Hirshhorn's director of public programs and chief curator, laments that the economic downturn in Europe and the US during the late 1980s and early 1990s ''largely eliminated the booming international market in contemporary art that had existed earlier....'' The Hirshhorn exhibit marks Balkenhol's first major show in the US.

* Balkenhol's sculptures remain at the Hirshhorn Museum through Jan. 15. They will then be shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 15 through May 26.

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