Whitehot Magazine

April 2011, Folkert de Jong @ James Cohan Gallery

Folkert De Jong, Folkert de Jong: Operation Harmony, James Cohan Gallery, 2011 (exhibition views)
Photo, Jason Mandella; Copyright the artist; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai


Folkert de Jong: Operation Harmony
James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th Street
New York NY 10001
April 1 through May 7, 2011

If you’re like me and you’ve spent hours looking for a place that recycles Styrofoam only to conclude that no one will accept it in your area, you’ll wish you could sculpt like Folkert de Jong. The Dutch artist has unveiled Operation Harmony, an exhibition of sculptures made entirely out of Styrofoam. Styrofoam, or “polystyrene” (Styrofoam is actually a brand name, like Kleenex or Band-Aids), is a paradoxical material. While commonly used as disposable packaging for take-out food, it’s far from disposable. Polystyrene is not biodegradable, nor is it readily recyclable in most places. In many cities it just gets thrown out and then incinerated, yielding toxic fumes. In other words, polystyrene is tough to get rid of. As such, the plastic foam is the perfect material for the life-sized sculptures in Operation Harmony. Folkert de Jong uses foam to cast grotesque characters that reference historical figures—not the heroes we love, but the villains we’d love to forget about. He dredges up disgraceful moments from the past, slamming them together, re-imagining them, and creating an alternate present. de Jong’s world is one of dualities, one where wicked people traipse about with their bodies covered in black goop that drips off like charred flesh, revealing innocuously neon undersides. His figures are expertly crafted. Their delicately carved faces possess minute details like eyeballs and teeth, but their bodies are half melted and unceremoniously stuck to their stands with dollops of liquid plastic.

The display in the front room of James Cohan Gallery, The Balance II, depicts a series of jester-like characters wearing those old-fashioned neck ruffs you’ve seen in Vermeer paintings or on modern day clowns. The dandies flaunt as they perch on oil barrels and on wooden platforms. They raise barrels above their heads and gloat as they dangle strings of pearls. Who are these guys? Pirates indulging in booty? Oompa Loompas who fell into vats of extra-dark chocolate? According to the gallery’s press release, the creepy figures are based on “a composite of a 16th–17th century trader character.” The scene depicted in The Balance II references one of history’s most infamous swindles: Dutch traders acquiring the Manhattan island from the Native Americans in exchange for beads and whiskey. It is historical injustices like these that haunt de Jong’s work. However, his sculptures aren’t merely re-enactments of the past. In fact, de Jong seems more interested in creating an alternate reality than in making a political statement. In one interview he says, “I try, in a way, to bring those negative energies [together], to give them a personality, so we’re safe and we can recognize them.” His scenes speak of past atrocities, but his artistic process warps, abstracts, and adds to them like a game of telephone. In de Jong’s tableaux of familiar and strange images, all is open for interpretation.

Folkert De Jong, Operation Harmony, 2008
Styrofoam, pigmented polyurethane foam, pearls 340 X 700 X 230 cm
Photo, Jason Mandella; Copyright the artist; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shangha

The central piece in Operation Harmony is the sprawling titular sculpture. Here, the jesters no longer gloat. They are decapitated and de-limbed, planks impaling their bodies where the arms and heads once were (somehow the neck ruffs stayed in place). The beams, pink in color and also composed of foam, create a free-standing grid like the frame of a house, one where some of the beams are human bodies. Operation Harmony, named after the Canadian forces deployed in Bosnia in 1992, references a different historical moment that the artist discovered through a painting by Dutch artist Jan de Baen. The painting from 1672 is titled The mutilated corpses of the de Witt brothers, hanging on the Vijverberg in the Hague; it depicts a pair of brothers being strung up and tortured for their political beliefs.

Although de Jong’s work is far more playful than Jan de Baen’s somber Dutch Golden Age paintings, he sculpts with the same attention to volume and anatomy as any 17th century master. His use of realism adds gravity to his sculptures—a gravity that is amusingly contradictory when one considers that Operation Harmony is made out of featherweight Styrofoam. It’s hard not to imagine toppling the sculpture, lifting it with one arm, or chewing its pink, plushy planks like marshmallows. Though the two sculptural scenes in Operation Harmony are fairly large, each filling its own room, the overall show is quite small. Consisting of the two main works, two smaller sculptures, and a set of oil stick drawings, it’s more of a mini-exhibition. However, the world it creates in the mind is one with endless boundaries. 

Folkert De Jong, The Balance: Trader's Deal 8, 2010
Styrofoam, pigmented polyurethane foam
Photo, Jason Mandella; Copyright the artist; Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski has published reviews of culture, and several chapbooks of his poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.

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