The colorful visions of a perpetual tourist

by Danielle Demetriou

Beneath a hazy moon, a party is in full swing at a mountainside terrace overlooking the endless twinkling lights of a city that may or may not be Los Angeles.

Barbecues are glowing, music is playing and bottles are emptying. But revelers are not clad in their usual hip attire: Instead, they have been transformed into languorously lounging devils, complete with naked red bodies, horned heads and masked faces.

This scenario of modern-day hedonism is captured in dense detail in a painting by New York-based artist Jules de Balincourt, whose exhibition recently opened at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum in Roppongi.

With a flurry of acclaimed shows at international art meccas ranging from Paris’ Palais de Tokyo to London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the 37-year-old artist has recently emerged as a rising star of the New York art scene.

His new Tokyo show features nine paintings tackling an eclectic array of topical issues, from United States domination and cyber space to human mortality and plotting politicians.

Speaking at the Mori Art Museum on the eve of the opening, De Balincourt says: “These paintings span seven years and although they may seem very different, there is an element of free association between the images.

“This creates a sense of freedom when I’m painting, the freedom to use different imagery to convey different themes.”

His style is as rainbow bright as the topics he tackles in the show, the latest in the gallery’s MAM Project Series devoted to supporting promising young artists.

With an explosion of pinks and reds, blues and yellows, and the presence of slogans and maps creating an edgy DIY feel, the paintings are vividly saturated and packed with details.

The end result? At its most colorful, it brings to mind the pictorial equivalent of what might be created by a patchwork-making grandmother on acid, albeit one with a punchy message.

“I have always been drawn to psychedelic colors, and I think it must be in my genes as my mother made decorative glassware and also loves bright colors,” he smiles.

There is the opening “Untitled,” in which swirling rainbow ribbons of light emanate from a disco ball in an open warehouse space, a tribute to a friend of the artist who passed away.

Meanwhile, in “Virtual World Embrace” — a newly created work — an apocalyptic big bang-like explosion of colors takes center stage with its title painted in signature block along the sides.

And succinctly named “We Warned You About America” consists of a patchwork-style map of China — virtually unrecognizable as it’s tilted on its side and swathed in colors.

Another stand out is “Feast of Fools,” the detailed tableaux of bedeviled party revelers under a full moon, which somehow manages to bring to mind both the damned figures of Dante’s Inferno as well as the empty hedonism often found in Brett Easton Ellis’ modern-day L.A. characters.

“This is about marginal societal escapism,” says De Balincourt. “People often seek temporary removal from city life, and as teenagers in L.A. we would often go up in the hills to party.

“But this shows it as a masquerade. The painting is mocking people of my generation for whom it was all about parties and drugs and no politics.”

For the artist, the theme of being an “outsider” is recurrent — something he attributes to a peripatetic, continent-hopping childhood.

By the age of 8, he had lived in his birthplace Paris, Zurich and Ibiza, before moving with his bohemian Swiss mother across the Atlantic to live in California’s Topanga Canyon.

“I was always a perpetual tourist,” he explains. “In France, I was never assimilated and in California I was always French, so there was always an outsider perspective. It was interesting but not always easy, and this has subconsciously inspired my work.”

The political also features, most often in the form of direct slogans conveying messages with the clarity of a commercial advertisement relating to issues such as America’s standing in the world.

“I want my work to be very accessible,” he says. “People shouldn’t need any art history to access it. It should work for everyone, like an advertising slogan, and not be convoluted in history and philosophy.”

Behind his messages is a lingering interest in community concepts, with utopian ideals and dystopian critiques often featuring in his paintings.

“Another painting of mine features an old German castle where there is a commune,” says De Balincourt. “But it’s not about sex and drugs, it’s wholesome and functional.

“It’s basically everything the 1960s got wrong. There was always a dark side to the 1960s which is why it failed.”

Three years ago, he unveiled his own mini utopian vision in the form of Starr Space, a community project in a warehouse in his Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, with events ranging from pingpong tournaments and church parties to yoga and punk rock parties.

“Starr Space related to a lot of things I believed in and wanted in a society — all the usual simple cliches of peace, happiness and harmony,” he says.

The dream recently came to an end, however: Hefty costs in time and money along with bureaucratic wrangling (he once spent 28 hours in prison for selling beer without a license) led to its recent closure.

But he has not given up on his community ideals: While he is currently luxuriating in the extra time he now has to paint and work on his new April exhibition at New York’s Deitch Project, his utopian dreams are lingering.

“At some point, I’d love to open a sort of commune for artists outside the city and have a self-sustaining farm,” he admits with a smile. “But for now, I’m happy just painting.”

Jules de Balincourt at the MAM Project, Gallery 1, Mori Art Museum, runs till July 4; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (till 5 p.m. on Tues.); admission ¥1,500 with entry to the “Roppongi Crossing” exhibition and Tokyo City View Observation Deck. For more information, visit: www.mori.art.museum/eng/