Balkenhol was born in 1957 in Fritzlar, Hesse, Germany, and studied art at the Hamburg School of Fine Arts (1976—82) known for its Minimalist and Conceptualist profile. His first figures appeared in 1983 as a reaction to these artistic practices that celebrated either abstract formalism or sheer ideas, and also in response to the artist’s interest in reintroducing the image of the human body in contemporary art. These early sculptures consisted of single male or female nudes attached to pedestals, echoing the tradition of classical Egyptian, Roman, and Greek statues. From the mid-1980s to the present, Balkenhol continued to depict the human figure, but now as ordinary looking men or women in simple clothing. In addition, during the early 1990s, he began to make animal figures alone or in combination with humans, as well as their hybrids. It is through these works, all carved out of wood, that Balkenhol established himself as an internationally reknown artist.
Balkenhol’s sculptures of commonplace people are not narrative in any explicit way, but are rather suggestive of a certain story, which, with its recognizable characters or situations, seems at once familiar and strange. To put it in Balkenhol’s own words: "I’m perhaps proposing a story and not telling the end, just giving a beginning or fragment. There is still a lot for the spectator to complete..." Rejecting "violence of expressionism" — the emotional pathos and grotesque — that is deeply rooted in the tradition of German art from the middle ages to the present, Balkenhol aims for objectivity and neutrality of representation. It is here that we can recognize the traits of Pop and Photo-realist artists, such as Malcolm Morley, Richard Estes, Richard Artschwager, and Duane Hanson, with whom he first became acquainted at the Dokumenta V (1972) in Kassel, Germany. Inspired by their pursuits of figuration in the heydays of abstract art, Balkenhol attempted to find his own interpretation of the human figure by employing a caricature-like style and humorous tone. And that kind of approach, celebrating plain-looking people in their ordinariness and humbleness, yet serenity and wit, has prevailed in his work to this day. Nevertheless, the minimalist affinity for reductive forms, unequivocal expression and sensitivity for a site, which deeply marked his formative years, has also been retained. And it is a combination of the two that gives Balkenhol’s work a distinctive character. At once real and imaginary — real for their physical presence and materiality, and imaginary for their lack of story-telling and psychological remoteness — Balkenhol’s people appear close to us and distant from us. Just like in reality, they are familiar strangers passing through our lives.
Balkenhol lives and works in Karlsruhe, Germany, and Meisenthal, France. He has exhibited widely in Europe and the United States, including at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C. (1995), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Saatchi Collection in London (1996), and the Arts Club of Chicago (1998), among many other museums and galleries.