On the Road: Jules de Balincourt at the MMFA

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Jules de Balincourt, Ecstatic Contact (2012), oil, acrylic and spray paint on panel. Private collection. Photo courtesy MMFA

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to claim that his seminal TV show Seinfeld was “a show about nothing.” What being “about nothing” really meant was, it could be about anything. In other words, Seinfeld had given himself built-in creative freedom.

Franco-American art star Jules de Balincourt does something similar. His new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is intentionally freewheeling. Featuring work from the past decade, the show includes portraits, landscapes, political art—you name it.

As de Balincourt explains in his artist statement for the MMFA exhibition, “I like the idea of the ‘road trip’ with painting: this notion of not knowing where you'll be, or what you'll see along the way. Painting for me is very similar, in the sense that I don't want to be following a preconceived map. I want to be free, and I want the process to be free.”

This is more audacious than it sounds.

People become artists because they like to experiment with ideas—although we, the audience, don’t always let them. We like to put artists in boxes (“He’s the one who takes pictures of dogs; she’s the one who does political word-art”) to help us make sense of their work.

Jules de Balincourt won’t play that game with us. Ironically, the more diverse his paintings on display are, the more his personal aesthetic comes through, since it’s the only thing that ties the pieces together.

At first, his paintings look like outsider art: they have the flat, seemingly naïve of style of children’s drawings. But de Balincourt is an insider’s insider, one of New York’s Hunter College hotshots from the middle of the last decade, and now Brooklyn’s “King of Bushwick.”  Like Canadian artist Marcel Dzama—whose work is in the National Gallery of Canada collection—de Balincourt gravitated towards a faux-naïf style for aesthetic reasons, and likes to play with the duality between utopia and dystopia.

De Balincourt often combines a “childlike” aesthetic with disturbing subject matter. In one of the paintings featured in the exhibition, two countries lob bombs at one another while spectators watch, as if it were a fireworks show. In another, someone seems to have wandered into a jungle straight out of Rousseau, hung up his flip-flops and woven bag, then disappeared. In de Balincourt’s art, the beautiful is disturbing, and vice-versa.

Each work in the exhibition urges you to stop and really look at what you’re seeing. If de Balincourt wants to call this a road trip, I’m happy to go along for the ride.

Jules de Balincourt: Paintings 2004–2013 is on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from 28 November 2013 to 23 March 2014. For more information click here

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