Jules de Balincourt: Precision and Abstraction

Franco-American painter Jules de Balincourt ruminates on abstraction, utopia and the accessibility of art, at the opening of his latest exhibition

Another Divided Island, 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

If contemporary art is frequently found to be conceptually obscure, exasperatingly self-referential or weighed down with lofty ideals, then the vibrant works of Brooklyn-based artist Jules de Balincourt may be just the antidote. With nothing more new-age than oil on panel, he has produced paintings that project a powerful radiance from within an abstracted haze. Imposing landscapes inhabited by roaming communities, each work is arrestingly aestheticised in a way another artist might find beneath them, but De Balincourt owns it. “Art for me, it always was about beauty and seduction at a certain level, the first thing that draws you to art is to be pulled into it, seduced by it.” He hurriedly adds, “but it can’t just be sugar-coated sweetness, I need an edge or tension or… I like the idea of these paintings standing at a crossroad where it could go either way. I like to leave that suspense.”

If Queens Ruled 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

De Balincourt was born in Paris, although from the age of nine he was raised in Malibou Lake, California. He has stated in interviews that he doesn’t identify as either entirely French or American, although with France recently voting in Macron over the far-right, populist Le Pen, it is clear that his mind is very much focused on the troubled and divided times facing the United States. It is almost a year since Trump’s inauguration when I meet him at the installation of his new show, They Cast Long Shadows, at Victoria Miro in Mayfair. Perched on stools in the main gallery, we are surrounded by these new works, and he gesticulates energetically whenever he seeks a point of reference.

Troubled Eden 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The show is an accumulation of activity from only the past few months, although this is in fact an arbitrary marker. “It’s just a continuation of what I’ve always done in some ways. There’s never a big drastic shift… I consider each show like another page in the same book.” De Balincourt is very precise about his process, if only to articulate its imprecision. Each painting is begun in abstract until, floating in the brushstrokes, “I find something to grasp onto and it eventually becomes figures.” These little populations in turn create a landscape from the floating impressionistic forms by transforming their surroundings into a coherent space. It is unplanned and instinctive, and de Balincourt eschews the use of photography or preliminary sketches. “I’m always working intuitively and unconsciously, I’m interested in my own self-discovery through making this work.”

This approach has informed the show’s installation process too, “I’m interested in the free-associative elements that come up when two completely different images are juxtaposed but I know they still somehow relate.” For all their chance origins, De Balincourt’s landscapes are highly expressive and their metaphorical power leaves them steeped in narrative potential.

Big Little Monsters 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

The island, a recurrent motif for the artist, who is also a keen surfer, has unfixed and shifting applications. In Island People the pastel pink island is an ‘Edenic comfort zone’ or a sanctuary where people freely congregate. In Divided Island, however, a gathering perches on one island and stares across a channel to another larger land mass that recedes into the distance. It speaks of islands that are insular and isolating with a resonance that is at once timeless and timely, as de Balincourt confirms – “it’s a subtle jab at Brexit”.

His work has long toyed with a tension between the utopian and dystopian, although he admits, “I think my work, when I was younger, was a little bit more direct. Now I push myself to delve more into the unconscious, the abstract, the intuitive and see what comes up.” This is inevitably influenced by real world events, which have recently loomed in the minds of many. “The real challenge under the Trump administration is how to confront the current situation at all… I don’t really know how to address it directly but I know that subconsciously I am concerned about what’s happening in America.”

Repeated Histories 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

In his recent move towards greater abstraction, de Balincourt has found avenues to address those issues. Even the most obvious work, Repeated Histories, in which a robust orange-faced man directs a small accusatory finger towards a row of black men, makes use of abstracting techniques such as repetition and distorted scale to reflect real power structures. Other works in the collection take a softer approach, and one that is distinctly undogmatic. The art is deliberately accessible, with de Balincourt entirely unconvinced by the social or political impact of art that he considers “convoluted and hyper-conceptual… completely wrapped up in a hermetically sealed corner of the art world. My work is in a weird way a resistance to that pretentiousness and elitism,” he stares intently at a canvas across the room before turning to me with a grin, “but then again, you know, I’m starting to sound like a Trump supporter.”

Cave Country, 2017 © Jules de Balincourt. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

De Balincourt’s work seems simple, yet strikes to the core of a complex conversation. In these dreamy worlds, at least, the utopian defeats the dystopian and de Balincourt announces, “I wanted to be optimistic. I wanted to still give hope.” At one point he gestures towards Cave Country, a large canvas in which a deep crevasse of hot oranges and warm pink cuts into a turquoise rock to house a crowd seeking refuge. He pauses carefully before declaring, “I like to think of it as a place away from the chaos of the rest of the world.”

They Cast Long Shadows is at the Victoria Miro Gallery until 24 March 2018.

Kanaal: Living in Art

Kanaal, the brainchild of Belgian art and interiors behemoth Axel Vervoordt, provides cutting-edge new exhibition and residential spaces at the forefront of design 

Kanaal. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Kanaal complex, originally an old malting distillery and grain storehouse, lies just on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s here, over the last two decades, that Axel Vervoordt – the interior designer and art collector who designed the Manhattan penthouses of Robert de Niro and Kanye West – has been gradually acquiring land and derelict agricultural buildings. Today, the recently opened, 55,000sq m site offers custom designed and sympathetically restored exhibition space, featuring permanent installations from luminaries including Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramović, as well as rotating showcase exhibitions for emerging artists. 

The complex also includes luxury apartments available for commercial sale, conceived by long-term Vervoordt collaborator, the architect Tatsuro Miki, and with interiors designed by Vervoordt himself. He envisages a close community here, brought together by a love of art and design – the site already hosts award-winning French bakery Poilâne and a restaurant, with daycare facilities in the pipeline. It’s a project that is truly a family affair, with Axel’s two sons, Boris and Dick, taking responsibility for new art acquisitions and real estate, respectively.  

Anish Kapoor’s At the Edge of the World, installed at Kanaal in 2000 and created before the artist achieved global fame, represents the “red beating heart” of the project, as Vervoordt explains to me at the event’s opening. “I wanted the space, which used to be a building where grains were sorted, to be like a Rothko chapel, a room for universal peace and harmony.” Recently, an opera was performed in the space.  

Axel Vervoordt standing underneath Anish Kapoor’s ‘At the Edge of the World’. Photo © Zoemin

Nearby, the Henro gallery houses Axel Vervoordt’s permanent collection, moved from its previous exhibition space in the heart of Antwerp. In Karnak, an ascetic space with the original solid concrete columns intact, works by Gutai artists are installed alongside Japanese sculptures dating from the Endo period. Literally meaning ‘concrete’, Gutai was a radical artistic movement that emerged in postwar Japan, its proponents aspiring to transcend the abstract painting of the time in favour of pure materiality.

The strength and legacy in the room is palpable: the columns once supported 60 litre silos. “When I first saw it, the columns reminded me of an Egyptian temple,” says Vervoordt. “The power is still amazing – almost religious. Industrial architecture is not made to be beautiful, it is made to serve.”

Karnak © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

The room next door is dedicated to three paintings by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, who descended from a prominent samurai family. The three ‘warrior’ paintings convey a primal violence reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy, the scarlet spattered canvases hovering, eerily suspended in the slate-grey gloom. When Vervoordt visited the artist at his home in Kobe in 2003, he witnessed an equally elemental mode of preparation.

“He would contemplate the empty canvas, until he became one with the emptiness. His wife would then pour the paint, and he would create the painting in a few gestures, without hesitation. This for me is the origin of life, that which comes out of emptiness. This is the big bang.”

Suiju, Kazuo Shiraga. Photo © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

“Now we go into the light”, Vervoordt jokes, as we exchange the shadowy gallery for comparatively blinding Flemish daylight. Though lighthearted, this is an apposite remark: at Kanaal, the levels of luminescence in each gallery are carefully weighted for optimum atmosphere.

Installation El Anatsui, ‘Proximately’. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Patio Gallery, a space for temporary exhibitions, is currently showing Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s ‘Proximately’, and is drenched in natural light. Anatsui’s tactile sculptures, vast quilts of scrap metal that have been washed, hammered flat and sewn together using copper thread, hang on the walls like glittering patchwork quilts. Vervoordt first discovered Anatsui’s work in Toyko, and presented the artist at the Venice Biennale in 2007, draping one of his sculptures over the facade of Palazzo Fortuny like a chainmail tapestry designed with the palette of Gustav Klimt.

Lucia Bru exhibition, Escher Gallery. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The industrial legacy of the Escher Gallery, a former brick warehouse and now another temporary exhibition space, remains clear. Though the machinery and grain silos have been removed, vast cylindrical concavities remain carved in the space. The sculptures of Belgian artist Lucia Bru that inhabit the gallery were not made in accordance with the space, but feel like a part of its industrial heritage. Fragments of crystal and milky porcelain with rounded edges, as though smoothed by waves, lie in glimmering piles. When I note the sculpture’s resemblance to sea glass, Bru emphasises the integrality of water to her work. “The elements of water and earth are part of the same family, they have a relationship, they fight, they reconcile,” she explains. Bru’s larger sculptures, which resemble pale rocky islands, are ceramic, a famously un-pliable, difficult material with which to work. “It has a mind of its own”, she notes. “I don’t like it when I control the material too much. I like it to surprise me.”

Detail of movidas, Lucia Bru. Photo © Jan Liégeois

Not all the structures at Kanaal are original, though it is often difficult to tell what has been newly built. Tatsuro Miki’s design celebrates this assimilation. “It’s important to preserve the existing quality of a place,” Miki says. “The first concept for the additional buildings at Kanaal was to create something as if it was already there. Once things have aged, we want them to be part of the same landscape. We prefer harmony to noise.”

Kanaal represents a continuation of Vervoordt’s design vision that has endured since his earliest restoration projects in the 1960s, to create an environment in which everyday life and art coexist harmoniously: a philosophy of living in art.