Jules de Balincourt, As Far West as We Could Go, 2014, oil on wooden panel, 72 × 48".

Jules de Balincourt, As Far West as We Could Go, 2014, oil on wooden panel, 72 × 48".

Jules de Balincourt

Jules de Balincourt, As Far West as We Could Go, 2014, oil on wooden panel, 72 × 48".

Jules de Balincourt’s exhibition of twenty new paintings reprised his signature naive-style landscapes and portraits in oil on wood. But new to the French-born, US-raised and -based artist’s characteristically dystopian and politically critical oeuvre was a sense of wishful optimism. Rendered in a cheery sun-drenched palette of coral pinks, seafoam greens, turquoise blues, and sandy yellows, de Balincourt’s latest suite of peopled urban and pastoral scenes blend memory and fantasy into pleasantly absurd alternative realities.

True to their surf-inspired hues, a number of the paintings that were on view depict island and coastal settings with boats and sunbathers. One idyllic cityscape, As Far West as We Could Go (all works 2014), evokes California’s Venice Beach boardwalk, where de Balincourt spent his youth learning to surf. A more general sense of nostalgia emerges from works such as Bicyclists (not yet titled), in which men, women, and children pedal along a sunny, car-free street. Looking even further back, Cave man, whose title character crouches in front of a bright-orange grotto, seems a paean to simpler times.

Despite a sprinkling of topical political subjects that include an Alexej von Jawlensky–esque portrait in blocks of color, titled Looking for Jesus and Osama, and a painting of uniformed soldiers whose raised arms are ambiguously waving or surrendering (Friendly milicia), de Balincourt’s references are mainly art historical. Les filles sur l’herbe (Girls on the Grass) depicts clusters of women lounging on blankets amid tall, shady trees. The work’s title nods to Manet’s most famous painting; one of the background figures is a nude whose elbow-on-bent-knee pose precisely imitates that of Manet’s scandalous subject. Stylistically and thematically, however, de Balincourt more consistently channels another nineteenth-century French painter, Gauguin, whose faux-primitive paintings and woodcuts of Tahitian women romanticize indigenous peoples in their natural environment.

This idealized sense of harmony between humans and nature—a theme that runs throughout this suite of paintings—is epitomized by Misfit Island. In this large work, a man’s head floats against a deep-blue seascape brimming with tiny ships. At once figurative and cartographic, the irregularly shaped color blocks making up the face (whose mustache might be that of either a fifteenth-century pirate or a present-day Brooklyn hipster) are reminiscent of de Balincourt’s map paintings, which co-opt the terrain of North America and France as an exercise in abstract form and color relationships. The image of a man embodying an island can’t help but call to mind the famous “Meditation XVII” from John Donne’s seventeenth-century Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “Noman is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Donne’s words aptly describe how de Balincourt’s paintings—individual pieces that the artist works on simultaneously, building up layers of paint across multiple compositions—are each at once a hermetic microcosm and pieces of a much larger and complex universe.

Mara Hoberman