Michaël Borremans, Milk (detail), 2003. Pencil, watercolor on paper. Private Collection, USA. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp.
The art of Michaël Borremans
With the U.S. premiere of Michaël Borremans: As Sweet as it gets, the Dallas Museum of Art brings this world travelling exhibition to its final destination. As Sweet as it gets is an impressive and thoughtful introduction to the multivalent work of this Belgian artist, showcasing more than a hundred works of art, almost half of which are paintings. The show was curated by the DMA’s Jeffrey Grove and co-organized with the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. Grove also contributed the main scholarly essay and an interview with the artist for a handsome catalog that includes over two hundred images and select analyses of Borreman’s work by over fifty artists and intellectuals.
Borremans began as an engraver, nurtured an interest in photography and cinema, and moved into drawings that he began to show professionally in the 90’s, only taking up oil paint in the last decade. The first part of the show includes several large-scale paintings and many smaller studies, while the latter half is devoted to his intimate drawings driven by a mysterious narrative.
The paintings have a light touch, with an even palette that shies away from hard lines and extreme detail in order to evoke the indeterminacy that Borremans seeks to convey. The smaller paintings seem like cropped photographs, depicting awkward anatomical views of heads, torsos, and even hands. In the full figure paintings like The Avoider, 2006, a larger than life-size depiction of a standing figure, barefoot and holding a cane made of a tree branch, occupies a nondescript space while staring toward an unknown distance. This piece sets the mood at the start of the exhibition and hints at what visitors are in for. The man at first appears to resemble a homeless waif, but Borremans conflates that reading by outfitting him with a somewhat flashy pink shirt, complete with stylish scarf, suggesting more of a dandy. Here, the incomplete picture leads to an elusive reading, making interpretation of the images a challenge; things existing outside of the frame are often hinted at.
Borremans painterly style certainly looks backwards, to Velazquez, Goya, and Manet, but the mysterious settings suggestive of unknown forces and bizarre oblique situations come directly from fellow Belgian artists James Ensor and Rene Magritte, who provide him with Symbolist and Surrealist motifs to explore in his own work. This is especially evident in the small drawing Le Sculpture de Beurre, 2000-2001, in pencil and watercolor on cardboard.
In a nondescript space with a hardwood foreground and no background, except for some notes and text, sits an enormous slab of butter the size of a boat with figures spouting from the top, perhaps trapped. A woman in a dress hangs from the front, a severed head sits on the floor, and the rest of the figures in the butter wear uniforms, some masked, with ambivalent expressions. These figures are reminiscent of Ensor’s obsession with masks, while the unreal sense of scale and tension bring Magritte to mind.The unreality of the setting and scale suggest the world of dreams, animation, or the unhinged play of the world of the unconscious fed by a mental line to the films of David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer.
In Borremans’ world, an iconographic realm informed by Freud’s notion of the uncanny holds sway. This antidote to technological certainty and instant answers, where the first response is amplified and privileged over the slower contemplative reaction, supports the alternate aesthetic vision he brings to bear on our reality.
– JOHN ZOTOS