It is widely accepted in the artistic circles that the work of Michaël Borremans is an acquired taste, at times referred to as disturbing. But my initial close-up encounter on the night of the Museum Night Fever, was an instant hit. Borremans’ major exhibition ”As Sweet As It Gets” is hosted in Bozar and presents 100 works from private and public collections, created over the last 20 years.
Borremans tends to work on small and medium size paintings but there are a few impressive larger-than-life ones like this barefoot fellow, strategically placed at the entrance, ushering visitors in:
Michaël Borremans – The Avoider (2006) 360 x 180 cm, oil on canvas © Photographer Ron Amstutz
Or the strong lean figure, her face covered in black paint – ”a painting within a painting” in the artist’s words – standing three metres tall in her long pink dress, looking down at the viewer:
Michaël Borremans – The Angel (2013) 300 x 200 cm, oil on canvas Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp © Photographer Dirk Pauwels
Michaël Borremans was born in 1963 in Geraardsbergen, East Flanders, one of the oldest cities in Belgium. Today he lives and works in Ghent. He moved there when he needed a change: he was 33 years old, a trained photographer and graphic designer, frustrated with the job he’d held for ten years teaching drawing at the Secondary Municipal Art Institute of Ghent, and decided it was high time he evolved artistically by taking up painting.
A bold change of direction for a relatively unknown artist who had never painted before. But Borremans is a man of conviction, structured and totally focused; working methodically, meticulously and passionately, he became one of the most sought-after artists of today.
He lives and creates in a large open space surrounded by white walls, lots of natural light coming through windows overlooking a green courtyard, wooden floors; an orderly, structured, minimalist interior in neutral, muted colours, a colour palette mirrored in his paintings.
Borremans works only by daylight because he ”sees” better and is always wearing a suit because working in his Sunday’s best helps him focus (unconsciously trying not to stain his clothes). He creates his subjects himself out of photographs he makes working with live models, producing powerful gripping images – you just have to look at them, even when their back is turned on you:
Michaël Borremans – The Ear (2011) 42 x 53 cm, oil on canvas
Borremans’ paintings show as little information as possible. He is systematically extracting things, creating an introvert, minimalistic environment with a detached and slightly morbid quality leaving the meaning of his work wide open to interpretation; so the viewer becomes simultaneously an accomplice and a spectator. His limited colour palette adds to the mood. Borremans knows his limitations: ‘‘I am not a great colourist. Those colours have to do with a lack of expertise. But I also do not like to use outspoken colours, because they divert the attention too much.(. ..). I think that the image has to have the priority. To me, colour has only a supportive function.’’
Michaël Borremans – The Load (2008) 40 x 49.8 cm, oil on canvas
Michaël Borremans – Sleeper (2007-2008) 40 x 50 cm, oil on canvas. Private Collection Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp © Photographer Peter Cox
Michaël Borremans, The Wind (2011) 42 x 36 cm, oil on canvas
Borremans’ greatest influence and inspiration is Velasquez who worked with brushes attached to very long handles which gave a spontaneous touch to his paintings. Borremans’ brush strokes are smooth, very delicate, academic, detached. But look closer and you’ll notice some bold, rougher finishing strokes, balancing out the morbid immobility, giving just a touch of movement to the stillness.
I was captivated by this first part of the exhibition – the paintings. But only when I arrived at the drawings section the artist’s true mastery was revealed. Borremans has drawn for much longer than he paints – it just comes to him naturally. Since his student days he’s been drawing only on recycled paper: cardboard, old envelopes, the backside of a book… The more stained the better because stains can be used as a starting point for an unfolding story. He would never work on a white sheet, in fact he finds white quite repellent, ”pure horror” are the words he uses, because ”you can’t have a dialogue with all that white”.
Michaël Borremans – A Mae West Experience (2002) 16,3 x 20,3 cm pencil, watercolor and white ink on paper
Michaël Borremans – The German (part two) (2002) 24,8 x 31 cm pencil, watercolor, white and black ink, mica foil and transparent tape on cardboard
Michaël Borremans – Two Circles (2006) 21 x 29,7 cm pencil on paper. Used for the cover of Vantage Point, the fifth album from the Belgian band Deus, released on April 18, 2008.
Michaël Borremans, “The Reference” (2007), pencil and watercolor on paper, 12,5 x 9,0 cm, Courtesy: Paul and Katrien Lannoy-Mattelaer
The decisive, meticulously detailed lines, the re-currency of the themes, the surreal perspective and scale of these drawings, the contrast between reality and fantasy, the balance between insinuation and truth are the artist’s way to discuss illusions: about political choices, personal freedom and the individual’s ability to perceive. And he does that brilliantly.
Borremans often likes to re-use a theme, a trend that is not limited to one medium. For instance, ”Wait” the rotating girl with the pleated skirt, is originally a drawing.
Michaël Borremans – Drawing (2002) 16 x 10,5 cm pencil, watercolor and white ink on cardboard
Michaël Borremans – The Skirt (2005) 70 x 60 cm, oil on canvas
Michaël Borremans – Weight (2005) 35.5 x 27.5 x 4 cm Framed 15” lcd screen – colour: VGA DVD (4:3) (duration 9.44 min.) (ed. Of 3 – AP) Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp, David Zwirner New York/London and Gallery Koyanagi Tokyo
Another example of re-using a theme is ”The House of Opportunity”:
Michaël Borremans – In the Louvre – The House of Opportunity (2003) 26,6 x 27,6 cm pencil, watercolor and white ink on paper
Michaël Borremans – The House of Opportunity – Voodoo! (2005) 17,3 x 23,3 cm pencil and watercolour on cardboard
Michaël Borremans – The Journey (2002) 17 x 24,7 cm pencil, watercolor, white and black ink, varnish on book cover
Just as his painting is cinematographic, in the same way, his films are shown like paintings on the wall: to be watched as long as the spectator wants. ”The Storm” was projected in a dark space, more like an intersection than a room, where people could view and walk by freely. Borremans works with a steady camera in an archaic way, with clear references to early cinema.
Michaël Borremans – The Storm (2006) – 35mm film transferred to DVD; 1:07 min (loop), colour, silent Edition of 3
”As sweet as it gets” is running until Sunday 03 August, 2014. If your way brings you to Brussels, don’t miss it!
Images from the websites of:
Zeno X, the gallery that Borremans is working with since 2000
Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar), Brussels
Visited on Saturday, 22 February 2014