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The lively vistas with eye-popping color in Nicolas Touron’s new paintings feature his signature cast of upbeat characters and motifs: green eyeless penguins; gooey bubble-gum-pink creatures with logs for eyes and teeth; slovenly blue oxenlike beasts with dangling, snaking heads that resemble elephant trunks; and hanging banners of colorful triangular flags. Created with the artist’s signature media of oil marker and ink pen on wooden panels, the three large square paintings—titled Happening Yesterday, Happening Today, and Happening Tomorrow—are window-sized works that survey strange, wondrous scenarios of dozens if not hundreds of these “personages,” as Touron calls them, as they busy themselves in hyperreal, overstimulated environments. Two smaller, round scenes, Deux Fois and Envol de Pieuvre, and several collages such as Ceremonie, re-create in their shapes the swirling world painted or assembled on their surfaces.
Though American Pop art and underground comics may spring to mind when viewing Touron’s work, his creations evoke more deeply the ecstatic, catastrophic scenes of Hieronymus Bosch or the peasant buffoonery of Pieter Bruegel. Another historical precedent is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese painting, which the artist recently studied during several weeks in Tokyo and Kyoto. The 2011 earthquake in that country inform the new works, as yellow gooey liquid floods the pictorial spaces of the square panels, but these references certainly do not guide their meaning. As in the past, Touron slyly slides in political allusions, here by scrawling words such as “rien” (“nothing”) or “Goldman Sachs,” evoking resistance, apathy, and/or helplessness toward our unending financial crisis. In this way, Touron is making oblique history painting: even with close, sustained viewing, the stories in each work never fully reveal themselves—but they fascinate us nevertheless.
Darkly inscrutable moods resonate in the sculptures on view. Avion, a ceramic airplane hanging from an aluminum armature and turned upward, sports strange coral-like growths on its stabilizers and rudder—or are these things lumpy figures with arms outstretched? Three additional ceramic pieces—the ivory-colored Soft Collapse 1 and the peached-tinged Soft Collapse 2 and Soft Collapse 3—depict the body of folded-up deer, initially fashioned from a mold but hand-shaped to create a unique object. Resting on cut-leather harnesses suspended from the ceiling with steel cables and grommets, these bent, tucked animal bodies eerily exude a foreboding stillness—helplessness and physical fragility mingle with the toughness of bondage gear—that contrasts the frenetic activity of the paintings.
Born in France, Touron studied art in the Netherlands and has lived in New York for more than ten years. What’s Happening! is his fourth exhibition at Virgil de Voldère Gallery. Touron’s work is also on view at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, New York, through March 4, 2012.