About seven years ago—just in time to kick off the art boom—a kind of get-rich-quick, end-of-history painting for the Bush era erupted out of MFA programs and onto New York’s gallery walls. Conventionally “radical” twists on the prickly challenges posed by an earlier cohort of figurative artists (think John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage), the tricked-out, dumbed-down daubing of painters like Dana Schutz and Kristin Baker, among others, nearly proved the haters of painting right. No matter how charitably one considered their pumped-up canvases, it was impossible for some—including this critic—to not see in their works’ banal good looks stroke material for the patriarchy.
Despite the hype he received, one painter who often beat the loweredexpectations of the noughties is Jules de Balincourt. More elusive, assured, and parody-resistant than most painters his age (say, Tom Sanford, with his bling portraits of rappers, or Josh Smith and his lame repetitions of his own name), de Balincourt retained a cranky intelligence amid the era’s demand for more surface and less depth. If his generation of artists today resemble the “21st Century Children of Gordon Gekko”—to employ a phrase recently coined to peg Wall Street traders—then de Balincourt is their Bud Fox: a figure whose slicked-back oil and acrylic routines have been known to provide, on occasion, nettlesome criticality to go along with prettily slathered-on paint.
De Balincourt’s latest solo show splits the difference between pleasing collectors and—in half the work—satisfying his own critical self. An exhibition of 16 new paintings ominously titled “Premonitions,” de Balincourt’s first and last presentation at Deitch Projects (Jeffrey Deitch, the P.T. Barnum behind this big top, is decamping to Los Angeles to reanimate that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art) includes pictures of various sizes and conceits done in his signature neo-folk art style. In keeping with this artist’s mercurial nature, some of these paintings burrow under one’s skin; others suffer from less-than-examined cultural chestnuts.
One example of de Balincourt’s not thinking things through is the painting Eyes of a Fortune Teller, in which a roughly drawn girl’s face is staggered vertically along a composition clogged with zippy skeins and pixel-like blocks of color. A portrait of social networking technologies—so says the gallery press release—this winsome piece is mum beyond cartoon foreboding on what should be called our era’s verbal incontinence, or blather-control problem. Another similarly handsome picture, Power Flower, presents a colorful Hanna-Barbera explosion whose pizzazz is philosophically indebted to the cliché of beautiful conflagrations—a nod to cherry bombs, one supposes, or to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who called 9/11 the greatest work of art ever.
Though it’s true that a painting is more than its putative subject—and that you can’t really pin down an artist by naming his favorite motif—de Balincourt’s artistic deficits appear most flagrantly where his industriousness and his generation’s intellectual laziness meet head-on. A painter whose signature move since his first New York gallery outing in 2003 consists of taped-off blasts of color, he repeatedly returns to this ribbony trope at Deitch (in instances like Power Flower and Eyes . . .), where his vague countercultural, pseudopolitical subject matter takes on the shape of ideas not earned or owned, but picked up “vintage.” (Note to de Balincourt: Channeling Francesco Clemente’s fringe-jacketed neo-surrealism in a painting like Kosmic Kissers is like trying on the Italian’s obsolescence.)
Other, more cohesive paintings find de Balincourt in greater control of both form and content, making for pictures in which visual pleasure turns unrecognizably, even disturbingly, awkward. There is, for example, a large work titled Floating Through It, an innocent-looking river landscape done in a Bill-Traylor-meets-Frederic-Church style. A painting that conjures up more Deliverance disquiet than other pictures here, it’s one of several instances where de Balincourt pursues layered psychological tension rather than the art world’s ubiquitous dystopian mood.
Another, much smaller painting, A Few Good Men, does something better still. In depicting an all-boy retreat rendered in trademark clashing acid and earth colors, de Balincourt asks embarrassing questions of himself and his generation’s relentless cultural joinerism. What one is to make of the adult figure being cut out of the picture or the blue-faced teen’s disappearing hand, de Balincourt won’t say. A painting as jarring in its formal properties as it is potentially icky, its fetching mysteries won’t submit to polite bromides—especially ones that, like much of the era’s handsome but vapid art, mistake appearances for depth, and success for achievement.