This is an archive of the ArtCat Zine, 2007-2009. Please visit our new project, IDIOM.

Dystopia How: Michael Cline's "Folks" at Daniel Reich vs. Jules deBalincourt's "Unknowing Man's Nature" at LFL

Michael Cline, Police Line, 2007
Micael Cline, Police Line, 2007, oil on linen 64 x 46 in. Courtesy of Daniel Reich Gallery website.

Michael Cline
Daniel Reich Gallery - 537 W. 23rd St., New York NY
September 15 - October 20, 2007

Unknowing Man's Nature
Jules de Balincourt
Zach Feuer Gallery (LFL) - 530 W. 24th St., New York NY
September 6 - October 13, 2007

First, I want to applaud both Michael Cline and Jules de Balincourt because they are aiming at something grand, or at least larger than themselves. This represents a real risk that should be acknowledged! Art with content in Chelsea tends to be about defining the individual artist, rather like using your hobbies to define yourself on your Myspace page. Matthew Barney is perhaps the most extreme example of this self-involved bricolage. Barney’s interest in everything from tea ceremony to the Isle of Man becomes a small piece in his baroque self-myth, and this self-myth, or brand, is his intellectual project.

Instead of working exclusively in terms of defining themselves, both Cline and de Balincourt are working to understand the world we all share — they are facing out instead of in. It's hard to reach past the self in this culture, especially when there is so much freaking money at stake in Chelsea.

It's also hard, after getting your average MFA training, to envision how to effectively reach past yourself and engage more than your own backyard of personal interest; whether it's trashing hotel rooms in a coke-induced stupor, or something more wholesome like surfing. We can all be honest and admit that as MFA candidates we were taught to think of ourselves as very interesting people, but that in fact what is interesting right now is just how fucked up the world might be.

It is notable that both Cline and de Balincourt are using the same rhetorical strategy to break past the self and into the world we share. They're tapping into known styles — George Grosz's social commentary and McCarthy-era book graphics, respectively — and leveraging the shared meaning those known styles have already accumulated against the fresh content of Life As We Know It Today. But this is where the similarities end. De Balincourt chooses an ironic, graphics-not-art context and a distant, landscapey content, yielding a dehumanized, distant apocalypse — TEOTWAWKI as seen from a skybox or penthouse, complete with smirky sloganeering. While this is certainly appropriate to both the zeitgeist and to Chelsea, it's also extremely safe territory for the artist. I would even call Unknowing Man's Nature conservative.

Jules de Balincourt, Think Globally, Act Locally, 2007
Jules de Balincourt, Untitled (Think Globally, Act Locally), 2007, oil on panel, 96 x 132 in. Courtesy LFL gallery website.

Cline, on the other hand, is taking the initial risk of working past himself very seriously, and backing it up with more and more risks. Working in a style that is so obviously à la Grosz could easily fail, and these paintings do teeter at the brink of derivative. The content, similarly, verges on a nonsensical cacophony before it asserts its own sense. In these paintings, there are (usually) just enough references to different eras, places and types of people to confuse you into realizing that you are looking at the world we live in right now. The result is a field of views into a meaty brown police state that are the opposite of de Balincourt's empty apocalypse. Cline's work reads as visions of the day after this so-called apocalypse, when we all get up and have to figure out what to do next — still full of our own filth, history and humanity.

De Balincourt is accurately reporting the present. We should be horrified, but are not. Instead, we are so confident and so innocent that we can turn our own self-destruction into a pretty spectacle. Cline, on the other hand, is envisioning a not-distant future of innocence lost — a world in which the powerlessness de Balincourt merely senses actually plays out on the ground. That vision, full of empathy and strangeness, actually becomes useful because we have never quite seen it before.

Unlike Unknowing Man's Nature, Folks isn't a room full of perfectly tidy pictures. Because Cline's work is much more difficult than de Balincourt's, it is also occasionally clunky. But so what? More art should refuse to resolve itself like this — more art should be this impossible to pull off! The bottom line is that any one of these paintings might very well collapse under the weight of its own romanticism; become sweet; get too many or too few chronological references and start reading as a particular time or place; or become all Walker Evans-ey and full of pity for them, the others... and yet none of them quite do.

Instead, I left the show feeling actual, loamy sorrow for us and our time. We should not be afraid to embrace this richness.