Jules de Balincourt, a French-born, Brooklyn-based artist, is the subject of the Modern’s latest Focus exhibition.
He has been relegated to the galleries farthest from the lobby, up a large flight of stairs and at the back of the house, because the huge temporary exhibit, “Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s” has taken over the first level at the Modern.
He fills the limited space with a dozen paintings — some quite large and a few of more modest size — saying that sometimes he wants to paint with big, arching arm movements and, at other times, he prefers the painstaking detailed work necessitated by small canvases. He uses a faux-naive style that allows him to skate between the abstract and figurative worlds for a place all of his own.
He often paints loose narrative landscapes that grapple with the duality of utopia threatened by dystopian forces.
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“They are optimistic, but there is also something creepy going on. We are in a utopian place of possibilities, but the world is becoming more violent and crowded,” de Balincourt says.
None of these places is real, or suggests a specific locale. He suggests global generalities and threats. “I work intuitively with no preliminary sketches, drawings or photos. It is all from my imagination.
“My paintings are a metaphor for a road trip. I don’t know where I’m going,” he says.
De Balincourt is quite comfortable with the painted journey and less fixated on an end result. The shadows of former shapes seep through his thin washes of colors. A riderless horse pulls a travois with two children aboard in Dismounted; the leader, or king, de Balincourt says, is missing as “the king was thrown off his throne, he was rendered powerless, there is only the ghost of the king.”
Thin washes of color suggest a former presence that has been erased but not completely. “I like the ambiguity,” de Balincourt says.
The ghostly fragments of what was once there but is now gone is one of the most compelling aspects of his paintings. Idol Hands depicts a plaza and park scene filled with demonstrators bearing placards of their leaders (none of which are the same).
“Everyone has their own spokesman, everyone has their own ideas of who are the historical figures,” de Balincourt says. The typical park sculptures of long dead warriors dot the park like grounds and are blotted out; all that remains is a white silhouette.
“It’s not a specific place; it’s generic for anywhere in the world — Europe, China, the Americas,” he says.
When he is more assured, the results are less pleasing. A large nude, Untitled (Phi), is so out of place as to seem legitimately naive and senseless.
“It is just a portrait,” he says defensively.
De Balincourt estimates he has completed more than 300 paintings in the past 15 years, and wanted to pull a dozen of them in a random fashion so the viewers could free-associate their own storyline. The final count was 10 canvases, which have a tenuous thread of the world in peril, with the unnecessary and jarring inclusion of a female nude.
It’s almost like a Hollywood blockbuster production.