Last week I was fortunate to stumble into Folkert de Jong’s exhibition at James Cohan Gallery. It is easy to see why he has achieved international acclaim with his meticulously carved Styrofoam tableaus. Holding a mirror to the past, he reflects cheapness and mass production onto events and personalities from Dutch history.
Operation Harmony (2008) dominates the main space of the gallery. The strict linearity of the installation is a nod to Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian. De Jong constructs his grid with decapitated heads and bodies that are painted black. From a distance they appear to be charred remains, morphing Mondrian’s rigid structure into decomposing bodies. The attention to detail is spectacular with intricately carved lace neck ruffs and the inclusion of realistic eyes and teeth.
The work is a parody of Jan de Dean’s 1672 print “The mutilated corpses of the de Witt brothers, hanging on the Vijverberg in the Hague” which depicts the execution of political prisoners. Their filleted remains are a warning to those who would oppose the established order. Our 24-hour news culture endlessly broadcasts such horrific scenes – the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the battles raging in Iraq and Afghanistan – to reinvigorate a sense of American values. De Jong imagines the continuity of the past in the present, where images of death and destruction pervade our reading of nationalism.
Similarly, Balance II (2010) is inspired by the purchase (read: swindling) of Manhattan Island from Native Americans for whiskey and beads. The figures hock their goods while balancing on industrial oil barrels as an ode to the West’s continuing involvement in Middle East politics. The moralizing element here is a reference to the 17th century paintings of Johanness Vermeer and Jan Steen, which depict the seduction of earthly goods. De Jong is by no means a moralist for creating these anti-monuments, he merely mines history and finds it ripe for parodying.