Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Viewing Notes: de Balincourt

Finally got over to Vanderbilt to see the Jules de Balincourt show. The pieces Joseph Whitt put together make a lot of sense as a group. I want to just run through impressions in sort of the sequence they occurred to me, taking some license. And these will be rough notes tonight. I might polish them later.

The first thing that struck me was how vivid some of the color is. Several paintings are dominated by the bright, almost day-glo colors of spray paint and tagging. It's a quality that doesn't come across in jpegs. A reddish/pinkish color dominates the first painting (going through widdershins), a picture of a bulletin board covered with blank notices. I'm pretty sure I read someone else point out the connection to the postings after the WTC attack. So you start with this image of disaster, the apocalypse that happened in real life, not just our imaginings.

You have images of collapse throughout. The postcard image for the show is one where a group of masked characters have invaded a Hollywood hills house, hanging out and partying. In another, masked figures steal or carry animals away from a house in the hills, a helicopter overhead blaring down its searchlight. Another image of a desolate street, post riot, has a multi-colored beam of light shooting overhead. These Southern California images of desolation and disorder reminded me of Octavia Butler.

Against the images of desolation you've got images of a kind of self-indulgent cluelessness--naked people at picnic table on a tropical beach, some sort of Club Med, or people scatterred through a room, disco ball overhead, blissing out on a raindbow that winds through the room. They've got candles burning in little bunches, which is another connecting element--the interloping partiers on the terrace have candles lit, and one sculpture is a sort of mannequin corpse laden with bunches of candles. The candles bring to mind meditation practices, a leisure time activity for priveleged people, but also power outages, as civilization temporarily stumbles backwards.

The images reflect the cultural environment as much as the political or social environment. One almost incidental painting has Neil Young's name in a cursive script, highlighted with different colors. It's like a high school student's fan-boy or fan-girl doodling. It's all about the pleasure of pop culture. And a lot of the material in here connects to pop cultural reference points. The colors remind me of graffiti, and some of the paintings, like the one of the people grabbing the rainbows, are in part done in a spray paint technique. Even the images of catastrophe and collapse speak as much to the world of movies and TV shows where the apocalypse is a popular trope, going all the way back to Twilight Zone episodes where someone finds themselves alone in an abandonned city.

A few pictures step out into more concretely political territory--an open boat filled with dark-skinned passengers cruising into the lights of a big city, or stern men seated around a big table (this one reminded me of one of Oswaldo Guayasamin's paintings, it was a series of paintings called something like Meeting at the Pentagon).

Overall, I was impressed with how densely stuff piled up in these paintings--political and cultural overtones, a willingness to indulge in the pure pleasure of bright colors, overlapping elements that tie the paintings together into different packages. Some of this sensation is due to Joseph's choice of paintings and position in the gallery, and he's certainly brought out those qualities through his curatorial choices.

The density of the work means that a work like Remembering Our Great Dead Heroes--its those words underneath multicolored curlicues--could be a reference to war dead, but in context those words and traces of color could be heroes from any cultural realm--maybe the heroes are Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

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