Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Julian Schnabel and Jules de Balincourt are hardly strangers to socially or psychologically attentive art. Schnabel’s neo-expressionist painting as well as his films have often manifested an acute sense of history and conscience. And de Balincourt in his work has consistently demonstrated a penchant for celebrating the grand resonance of particular moments. At the same time, though, neither has ever seemed overtly essayistic or advocative, as though he were self-consciously speaking for his fellow human beings. With their respective solo exhibitions now up at Pace, that disposition appears to have changed.
In his show “Midnight Movers,” de Balincourt is clearly contemplating the profound consequences of climate change, political upheaval, and associated perils. The oil-and-oil-stick-on-panel work focuses on individuals at risk in a foreboding register. Viewers might well infer a distinct narrative. Fire on the Mountain could depict collective trauma; the brown figure on horseback in Untitled – the designation is probably meant as a double-entendre referencing the notion of landlessness – and the enveloped everyman in Between Heaven and Earth forbidding forms of dislocation; the luridly red cityscape of Les Arriviste a threatening reception for refugees; the drained, dimly lit, and detritus-filled swimming pool in The People that Paid and Played the demise of the middle class; and the eerie split in Divided Camps brooding political irreconcilability. Yet each painting rests brightly and comfortably in its own light, blunting any daggers of didacticism.
Schnabel’s oil paintings on velvet in “Bouquet of Mistakes” are more abstract than de Balincourt’s, and opaquer if still richly referential. They seem to target kindred concerns. Nodding at once to the rarefied worlds of artists and their capacity for penetratingly idiosyncratic and serendipitous insight, the ten-panel title piece – its title in full is Buñuel Awake (for Jean-Claude Carrière) or Bouquet of Mistakes – evokes the itinerant reveries of a surrealist. The panels conjure fishing lures underwater, and, metaphorically, catching and grasping something elusive. Most of the other paintings are titled The Nine Skies and the Mountain Fortress, distinguished by different Roman numerals, and project the same basic allegorical imagery: a vertical redoubt rising from nature. None of the “skies” is at all clear or bright, and the notional fortress looks rather vulnerable. It seems to be surrounded by water at various stages of encroachment, including the ultimate one: in VI and VII, the last two of the series, the fortress appears enshrouded or submerged – first in a sickly green haze or fluid, then in a cleaner but still murky blue one, the sky notable (and noticeable) only in being occluded.
In using velvet as a surface, Schnabel slyly enables his paintings not only to convey folly and decay but also to embody and illuminate the oblivious opulence that has allowed such phenomena to flourish. The accusatory, and perhaps inculpatory, thrust is not explicit, but neither is it indecipherable. For his part, de Balincourt complements Schnabel’s oblique assay of cause and process with a more direct focus on consequence. To put the matter at hand somewhat elliptically, these pre-eminent painters have become strategic. They are looking unflinchingly at the entire world, over a span not of minutes, hours, days, months, or even years, but of generations. If artists ever sought hermetic, detached, or compartmentalized lives, they reckon that no longer seems a realistic option.
“Julian Schnabel: Bouquet of Mistakes,” Pace, 540 West 25th Street, New York, NY. Through October 28, 2023.
“Jules de Balincourt: Midnight Movers,” Pace, 540 West 25th Street, New York, NY. Through October 28, 2023.
About the author: Jonathan Stevenson is a New York-based policy analyst, writer, and editor, contributing to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Politico, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.