Burn, Baby, Burn


Here are two uneven but auspicious debuts. One is filled with primitivistic fervor, decorative flourish, pent-up emotion, and a trace of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rawness; the other is alive with color, surface tension, and craftiness. Both have squirrelly titles; each is at a newish gallery that is already making waves.

“Wolfman Cometh,” at the unpretentious Lower East Side storefront gallery that aristocratically calls itself Rivington Arms, features the highly wrought, small-scale paintings and drawings of Keegan McHargue, 20 (yikes!), whose work is rife with outsider obsessiveness, a natural’s touch, and a witchy superfluity. At LFL, still retaining its funkiness after relocating to a ground-floor space on the super block of West 24th Street, is Jules de Balincourt, 31, currently an M.F.A. student at Hunter. “Land of Many Uses,” as his show is called, reveals an artist who has a psychedelic sense of color, a wry way with narrative, and a wickedly twisted subversive streak. For those who say—and many do—that artists shouldn’t show when they’re very young and still in or just out of art school, and that critics shouldn’t review them if they do, stop reading; you’ll only get irked.

De Balincourt’s kaleidoscopic paintings—which exist somewhere between cheesy advertising, illustration, folk art, Verne Dawson, Laura Owens, sign painting, and Indian miniatures—veer dangerously close to the work of San Francisco artist Chris Johanson. In spite of a shared cheekiness and juvenilia that both artists will hopefully grow out of, there are notable differences between the two: De Balincourt’s politics aren’t as pointed as Johanson’s; there’s no street or graffiti influence; and although he often depicts cartoony scenes of protesters and rock concerts, de Balincourt’s stories are more humanistic and center on a young generation beset by worries but coping the best it can.

What really carry the day are de Balincourt’s aquarium-like Day-Glo color and the physicality of his surfaces. Working primarily on wood panels, he tapes off areas, spraying or stenciling them with thin layers of enamel and acrylic paint so that the wood grain is often discernible. The finished pictures are dire, dreamy, and farcical. Of the 20 paintings here, a handful are very good; one, Portrait (a picture of a man with glasses) is a sleeper, and the rest aren’t bad. In my favorite, Peaceful Protesters, a group of naked people join hands around a campfire in the snow. The stenciled translucent trees, the spray-painted smoke, and the blue-gray shadows are tantalizing. Plus, the overall palette harmonizes nicely. The same goes for Media Information Transmission Center, in which two naked people broadcast rainbows from satellite dishes atop a hut in the woods; Huge Blowout Sale, a picture of a prismatic tent with a smoky black cloud billowing from it; and Concert, which features a scattered crowd of kids in an auditorium (see the artist’s name on one of the T-shirts). Sinking Ship shows off de Balincourt’s clunkier side and is the folkiest painting here, while U.S. World Studies #1 is a multicolored update on a famous Jasper Johns motif, a map of the United States, only here Russia is in the Midwest and everything else is out of kilter. The poignant and pathetic Neil Young is just the warhorse’s name painted on a placard.

Without the paintings I wouldn’t be writing about de Balincourt. Nonetheless, the two biggest pieces in this show (which is awkwardly installed) are sculptures. Both are witty and flawed. Treehouse (made in collaboration with fellow Hunter students Andy Cross and Johnston Foster) is a rainbow-colored floor-to-ceiling tree with cerulean leaves. Made of wood, foam, and police barricades, it is simultaneously clumsy and elegant, and has a ladder leading to a perch large enough to accommodate several people. It would have been more effective had this space been activated somehow, maybe by hanging a few paintings. Still, it’s the best place to see the little painting, hung high on the wall, that simply says “Bush Sucks.”

The second sculpture, Flood Piece, is a ramshackle, refrigerator-scaled model of a town set in an idyllic valley with a river running through it. The village is Malibu Lake, California, where de Balincourt grew up; the water is real. If you stick around long enough—much too long, as all sense of drama and suspense is lost—the water rises and eventually floods the entire valley. Cars and houses are immersed. It’s a wrath-of-God catastrophe sculpture—a sort of American cousin to Thomas Hirshhorn’s anarchical installations.

Balancing de Balincourt’s breeziness and mirthful color are McHargue’s manic fandangos of line. McHargue makes pensive paintings and drawings of strange animalistic beings, horned bulls, bears, birds, hermaphrodites, and females who give birth to spectral presences via train-tunnel vaginas. All are rendered in a flat, relentlessly decorative style that’s equal parts Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, Chicago Imagist, Mayan and Northwest Coast Indian, and Mesopotamian. McHargue’s line is scratchy but precise, and resembles those in medieval woodcuts. His palette, which is limited to tan, gray, black, and murky off-white, with flourishes of emerald, salmon, and turquoise, is enticing.

In many of the 57 untitled pieces on view—all done in latex, acrylic, gouache, ball-point pen, correction fluid, nail polish, or pencil on birch panels, manila envelopes, or notebook paper—we see spooky, long-armed creatures who often do little more than reach out to or hold one another. In one panel, a sort of gothic Wolfman or Cocteau Beast, garbed in a fantastic Klimt-like kimono of crosshatches and dashes, stares at a Munch-shaped head with a menacing saber-toothed mouth. A disembodied hand reaches in from the right. In another picture, a haloed Rapunzel-Mary Magdalene figure with long blond hair (the patterning is wild) reaches toward a bird that perches atop a brick plinth. Like many of the works here, both paintings are mythic, religious, and full of feeling without being ponderous or cute.

McHargue’s artist statement (which echoes some of the ardor expressed by the English duo of Nick Relph and Oliver Payne) is short, to the point, and says a lot about how he makes his work and the way he sees the world: “When I make the things that I make, my head clears and all I can see are my own ideas taking shape.” “I need this!” he writes, and implores viewers to “stay positive and enjoy every second of their fucking lives,” adding, “You are just as much a part of this whole thing as I am.”

McHargue’s paintings and drawings are intense and intensely graphic. As with Adolf Wölfli’s jam-packed art, McHargue’s can take some getting used to. Initially, the way he seems to repeat images and the teeming ornamentation of some of his drawings (which have more space and physicality than his paintings at this point) is daunting. But McHargue’s work can pull you into a luxuriant, primal realm.

McHargue and de Balincourt have a lot to learn. Both are just starting out, especially McHargue, who nevertheless feels like a homegrown Francesco Clemente by way of the early, awkward David Hockney. Yet each artist plainly has a vision and talent to burn.