His name may conjure stuffy period films, French aristocracy and the protagonists of flowery romance novels, but in person Jules de Balincourt is every bit the Brooklyn artist. On a rainy Friday afternoon, he’s wearing reddish skinny jeans, work boots, and a bright magenta scarf; his closely cropped light-brown hair is speckled with delicate wisps of gray. He warns that he is going to chain-smoke throughout our interview but puffs at only two American Spirit cigarettes in the hours that we talk, distracted from his smokes by his discussions of California culture, communes and a recent motorcycle trip he took through India with friends.
Lining the walls of the artist’s fourth-floor space are bright oil-on-panel paintings of all sizes. Some of these will be included in his upcoming mini-retrospective at the Mori Art Museum, in Tokyo, which runs March 20 through July 4. Over the past five years, de Balincourt, 37, has developed a highly nuanced painterly language — one that careens between the abstract and the representational. Some of his new paintings are pure form (the massive Speculator, for one, shows an accumulation of ribbonlike streaks resting atop the text of the painting’s title, spelled out in de Balincourt’s typically brut block lettering), while other works are folksy and figurative (a lone tree strewn with a coat and satchel; young people gathering at an outdoor stage for what looks like a protest). It’s this playfulness and refusal to pigeonhole himself that have made him a New York art world darling these past few years.
There’s a quiet energy in the way de Balincourt moves around the studio, explaining the new series. He’s introspective but chatty, carefully confident and plainly excited about this new body of work. "I’ve been painting more intuitively," he says. "I just feel like, in this day and age, with iPhones and the Internet and this hyperstimulation of image and information, how do I, as a human being, process it, make sense of it all? The work is a bit more of a transitional space. A lot of the scenes are more pseudospiritual or metaphysical."
De Balincourt’s new abstractions get at this "metaphysical" side of things. In works like Speculator, colors and lines create a sense of 2-D momentum; another piece is a burst of linear energy, with skinny strips of color shooting out from a central nucleus. Intuitive, even pseudospiritual, perhaps, but this new series still bears the visual markers of de Balincourt’s older work, much of which was laden with a subtle criticism of corporate America and consumer culture gone global, not to mention past and present tendencies toward imperialism.
"His technique is strange and unconventional, but that’s not really the focus in his work. It’s his imagination and his critique that are center stage for me," says Kathy Grayson, a director at Deitch Projects, in New York, and curator of the recent "New York Minute" show at the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea in Rome, which included de Balincourt’s work. "The fact that he deals with critique at all breaks with many artists of his generation."
Like a lot of New York artists, de Balincourt is not a native of the city. He was born in Paris and had a somewhat nomadic early childhood, living in Spain and Switzerland before settling in the Santa Monica Mountains with his mother when he was about 10 years old. After high school he moved to Santa Barbara to study ceramics at a community college and live out what he refers to as his hippie days on a commune with 13 other arty types. There de Balincourt made and sold pottery and drums to fellow members of the Burning Man-attending/Grateful Dead-loving crowd.
Local music stores soon picked up his wares, and the artist experienced moderate success on the California crafts fair circuit before decamping north to Oakland to attend the California College of the Arts. It was there that de Balincourt first dabbled in painting, depicting nuanced urban landscapes on giant slabs of clay — his "modern-day frescoes."
In 2000, de Balincourt left California and drove to New York City. The idea was to spend a year working and establishing residency in order to attend graduate school on the cheap as a local. When he made the move, he was approaching 28, which, he says, was "already kind of late. I was seeing 24-year-olds having solo shows and thought, ‘Wow, did I already miss my opportunity?’ I had had a little bit of success in California. And all of a sudden I got here and the art world seemed liked this impenetrable fortress."
He settled in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s now an artist hub, but back in 2000, de Balincourt notes, the area was nothing but "burnt out cars and bodegas." He took a job as a deliveryman at a vegan restaurant and, shortly after that, as an art handler. "I worked on trucks delivering art to Philip Johnson, Matthew Barney and all these galleries," de Balincourt recalls. "I got to see the inner workings of the beast. It humanized it all to me, even though some parts of it weren’t necessarily human." He likens the gig to highbrow janitorial duties; he found himself disgusted by fad buyers, the types who acquire an Andreas Gursky photograph because it’s hip but don’t consider "the fact that they can’t even fit the thing through their front door."
He soon found refuge in the Hunter College MFA program, which he began one week after 9/11. The program afforded him a spacious West Side studio, and he created a strong community there. With the help of art-school friends Andy Cross and Johnston Foster, de Balincourt used foraged materials to build a massive in-studio tree and a tree house that could sleep at least a dozen of his new colleagues if they were ever looking for a late-night crash pad. And although de Balincourt entered Hunter as a ceramics major, he quickly found himself gravitating toward painting. And politics.
"Basically, from 2001 to Obama’s election, so much of my work was fueled by the political and social climate of America," he says. "All of sudden we were living in this police state. All of a sudden people are waving their flags, and something like 90 percent of the U.S. is for going to war."
He doesn’t consider himself a political activist ("just socially conscious," he says). Still he helped bus Hunter kids down to Washington, D.C., for rallies. He also participated in the volatile Critical Mass bicycle-riding protest during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.
It was around this time that his art career began to take off. The New York dealer Zach Feuer (known for fostering emerging talent) saw de Balincourt’s paintings at Hunter’s Open Studios event and was immediately drawn to the work’s "amazing sense of humor," he says. "It was casual but hit on these paranoid fantasies. He made a piece for his midterm review where he hid inside a small tree-house sculpture so he could spy on the teachers debating whether to pass or fail him."
By spring 2003, his third semester in school, de Balincourt had landed a solo show at Feuer’s Chelsea gallery (then called lfl). The exhibition brought the artist’s anti-Bush feistiness to the fore, with paintings of rural landscapes invaded by billboards and media blasts (beautifully rendered as bursts of color emanating from smallish satellites), some incorporating not-so-subtle text ("Bush Sucks," for instance). The artful tree house de Balincourt made with Cross and Foster was also on view.
"Jules’s first show came at a time when painting had a mini-renaissance, when a lot of great shows, a lot of great reviews, and a lot of sales went to great painting and often this handmade kind of folksy-looking stuff," Grayson says.
After this debut, de Balincourt started to build a name for himself locally. In 2004 he was included in group shows at Deitch Projects, TM Gallery, Coney Island (in "The Dreamland Artist Club," put on by the New York art nonprofit Creative Time) and at P.S.1, where he was part of the institution’s pulse-taking "Greater New York" survey the following year. For his second solo outing with Feuer, in 2005, he exhibited a dark body of work featuring desolate landscapes and sterile corporate boardrooms. The pieces weren’t overtly political, but the undertones were there, particularly in a series of maps redistributing U.S. territories to their original Native American inhabitants. After that exhibition, de Balincourt decided he needed to take a break from his adopted homeland and moved to Berlin for one year. "I didn’t want to be this angry, bitchy, whiny voice about America," he says. "Just the notion of America was fueling so much of my work at that time. I needed to get away."
When de Balincourt returned to New York in 2006, he bought a big warehouse space in Bushwick with the intention of making it his studio. Instead, he and fellow artist Andrea Merkx converted it into a community center of sorts. Starr Space, as it was called, hosted fundraisers, art-rock shows and parties, including baptism celebrations and quinceañeras for the predominantly Hispanic church next door.
"There’s a certain liberty out in Bushwick," de Balincourt explains. "You can still create your own community here. And that is what Starr Space was. It was my own little self-sustained utopia."
Such liberty comes at a price — especially when you’re the perennial host. De Balincourt served jail time (27 hours, to be exact) following one Starr Space event (he’s mum on the details). And after three years of running the venue, he’s throwing in the towel. It takes too much time, costs too much money, he says, and he really wants all that space to use as a studio.
Lately, he’s been traveling a lot — the motorcycle trip through India, along with treks through Japan, California and, in the near future, Peru. The images and themes emerging in his new paintings, he says, reflect the precarious moment we’re in as a country. The uncertainty manifests itself in ambiguous crowds — people with picket signs, strangers on foreign streets. The works are more free-associative, and while de Balincourt has always painted from his imagination, he’s now looking inward even more. "It’s my own sort of escapism," he muses. "It’s coming out of going into the unknown — ‘Where is it going to take me?’ Everything inspires my work; lived experiences, cultural and social phenomena. But it is more and more about that internal gaze, a mix of these utopian and dystopian ideals. It all sounds kind of New Agey, but these days, that’s what I’m interested in."
"Jules de Balincourt" originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's February 2010 Table of Contents.