The experience of seeking escape from a European ideal, only to find a temporary Westernised world elsewhere, is one that has affected artists’ endeavours from Paul Gauguin’s myth of Tahiti to Jean Léon Gérôme’s construction of an Oriental world.
California occupies the same imaginary space, of dreams and desires, of sunsets and canyons and of the endless frontier. However, unlike Gauguin and Gérôme, Jules de Balincourt’s solo exhibition ‘Stumbling Pioneers’, spread across Victoria Miro’s two floors, exposes the very myth of escape through a dystopic landscape where figures drift aimlessly or are nowhere to be found.
Take the large-scale painting, ‘Dried Up’. The sun glares down on an empty swimming pool, filled only with rubbish and discarded chairs, setting the pink, yellow and green shades of the trees and grass alight. Here, de Balincourt captures the effects of the Californian drought through a backyard devoid of figures. The over-saturated colours transposed on to the Californian landscape, including the electric-pink cliffs in ‘Sanctuary’ and the blood-red cove in ‘Night Moves’, feel somewhat ominous, as if something is environmentally amiss. The city scene in ‘Golden Flood’ appears filtered through air pollution. The work’s surface is caked in a sickly yellow. Evening traffic overcrowds in ‘What Divides the City People and the Country People’, trucks overtake in ‘Truck Stop Blues’ and quad-bikers tear through the silence within ‘Mighty Men and Big Trees’.
de Balincourt grounds ‘Stumbling Pioneers’ in the frontier of California through works such as ‘Dancing Cowboys’, ‘Spirit Mountain’ and ‘Dessert Still Life Spirits’. Native Americans and spirits occupy the landscape, challenging the assumed emptiness of the frontier. de Balincourt’s play of colour in ‘California Native’ – vivid yellow, orange and pink – disturbs the typical image of the ‘California girl’. It also asks questions of territorial ownership – essential claims to a land settled by Native Americans brutally overturned.
Throughout the exhibition there emerges a knowing disdain for western capitalism and globalised contemporary culture. In ‘Watchers’, de Balincourt renders a group of onlookers more entranced by their phones than the landscape in front of them. ‘Private Party’ shows a public park fitted with statues seemingly co-opted by privatisation and the sway of funds. The artist offers alternatives to such experiences through ways of living that are more congruous with the landscape. The Californian desert settlement Slab City appears in work of the same title. ‘Cliff Dwellers’ turns its eye to a micro-community inhabiting a cliff, while ‘Canyon Kids’ captures backpackers in the jungle, casually dressed as if engaging in their daily commutes.
Betraying the myth of escape, ‘Stumbling Pioneers’ expresses the creative generativity of seeking alternatives. For even as it might seem ‘comprehensively colonised’, the physical and conceptual boundaries of landscape are shifting and mutable.