Dutch artist Folkert de Jong’s sculptural works are a grotesque and playful representation of international social histories. He establishes new narratives through the deconstruction of the past (referencing art history, warfare, colonialism, assassinations) assembled in figurative forms so that the viewer can recognize and remember our collective history.
His characters emerge through the time barrier like tarred ghosts, an evocation of negative energies brought forth to enlighten and entertain. These sculptures aesthetically ooze with attraction and repulsion; this push/pull creates a rupture that becomes our portal into an at once familiar and foreign struggle. Carnivalesque costumes, sickeningly sweet colors, and devilish grins are accompanied with barrels of oil, decapitated heads, and rifles. Humor is used to translate the horror and make it palatable. As the bad twin to characters in a Disneyland ride (think Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean) De Jong’s figures urgently perform and unfold the history of human drama. These ‘tableaus’ are dropped directly into our present – the gallery, the museum, the studio are the background settings. Here is where time and space collapses as the past merges seamlessly into the now. These are not the desolate and isolated wastelands of Ed Kienholz, they are frighteningly alive ghosts beckoning us join their ‘danse macabre’.
As sheer material form, the sculptures are wholly hand-made and consist of Styrofoam, polyurethane foam, and occasionally clay. The usage of Styrofoam is significant beyond its easily modifiable form; it’s the same medium used in the film industry for architectural and stage design and it’s also produced by the same company who manufactures Napalm (that deadly chemical agent used prolifically in military operations). This subversive combination of fantasy (film) and reality (warfare) makes de Jong’s works resonant with power; an explosion occurs between representation and the acts being represented. And it’s within this space the horrors from the past emerge to haunt our present consciousness.
De Jong gives the viewer an arsenal of information. With just enough bit of candy coating, he coaxes us into our historical tales of terror that do not exist within the confines of film set but have been living amongst us within our everyday world. In his latest exhibition at James Cohan Gallery brings this forth via newer and older works including the large-scale and ominously fragmented Operation Harmony (2008). Titled after the contradictory name given to Canada’s 1992 military mission in Bosnia this sculpture references another political invasion, the lynching of Dutch political figures the DeWitt Brothers in 1672. Depicting five headless bodies strewn across the vibrant pink scaffold, only four heads (smiling, direct, sinister) look out at us. They represent men involved in various political assassinations and genocides. With title and source separated by hundreds of years we bear witness to the fact that “progress” often involves a sacrificial death. The conflation of these different historical events and geographical locations together with the present day makes for a curiously charged experience. These men are long dead but their stories have been re-animated.
A newer installation is The Balance II: Trader’s Deal 6-9 (2010) featuring a vignette of proud Dutch traders prance with their treasures of beads and whiskey from Manhattan’s Native Americans. Place in the front portion of the gallery and directly facing the street, these men beckon viewers to share in their spoils. However unlike the charm from the buccaneers in Pirates of the Caribbean, we are more suspicious of these fellows and their inviting presentation of swindled goods. Other works like Business As Usual: “The Tower” (2008) the “No Evil” or “Morality Monkeys” remind us of our ability to look the other way and even perhaps America’s obsession with eliminating anything sad from our thoughts.
Seeped in the significant role art has played in the expression, sublimation, and manipulation of war and terror, de Jong continues the art historical tradition of bringing atrocities to light. In this sense he also acts like a skilled horror film director whose purpose is to manipulate reaction and produce affect. Tackling a myriad of historical traumas, like horror cinema, de Jong exposes universal truths to engage the viewer in a proactive remembrance.
Images (top to bottom):
Installation view: Operation Harmony (2008) and Business As Usual: “The Tower” (2008)
Detail view: Operation Harmony (2008)
Installation view: The Balance II: Trader’s Deal 6-9 (2010)
Business As Usual: “The Tower” (2008)
Photos: Jason Mandella / James Cohan Gallery