‘As sweet as it gets’

Despite its name, the exhibition of works by Belgian artist Michaël Borremans is quite mysterious.

MICHAËL BORREMANS’S “The Devil’s Dress,” 2011 (photo credit: PR)
MICHAËL BORREMANS’S “The Devil’s Dress,” 2011
(photo credit: PR)
Speaking at a press conference held just before the opening of his first major exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Belgian artist Michaël Borremans told the attendants that there had been a small media storm in his country because he had decided to proceed with the exhibit.
“I gave a lot of thought about whether to come to Israel or not and my conclusion was, yes, I should do this,” he said. “A cultural boycott is not necessarily a good thing. I think communication between people and countries is something positive and the boycott seems to me to lack vision,” he further stated.
Given the recent political situation and the pressure occasionally exerted on those in the cultural and academic sphere not to engage with Israel, Borremans’s decision was a brave one.
After the press conference Borremans, in the company of Jeffrey Grove, the curator of the exhibition, led members of the press around the exhibit, all the while conversing about the works on display.
Encompassing 100 paintings, drawings and films, the exhibit, entitled “As Sweet As It Gets,” provides an overview of the artist’s work over the last fourteen years.
The title is somewhat ironic as Boremanns’s works are anything but sweet. Unsettling, mysterious, strange, these are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe his portfolio. The sense of mystery and intrigue created by the paintings is all grist to the Borremans mill. He likes to puzzle an audience, although it would be too facile to think that posing riddles is the raison d’etre of his work.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, the artist said, “I don’t intend to tell a story in a painting, although I use elements that could refer to a possible story. I play with how the audience might perceive a work. There are references or codes in the [visual] language, but because of the game I play the audience can never really define the image that I make.”
Welcome to Borremans’s world, a universe where, to avail a couplet from Bob Dylan’s surreal “Ballad of a Thin Man,” ”...something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is..” But, that’s okay.
Because very few do.
Borremans first trained as a draughtsman, and drawing is at the root of his painting practice. His technical ability has been much admired, yet he is humble enough to acknowledge that he is still learning.
The drawings and paintings are displayed in different parts of the museum, although recurring figures and scenes can be seen in all three media that Borreman explores, a feature that has been commonplace throughout his career.
A young girl, in the form of a model or manikin, is seen in the film “Weight,” from 2005. Three years later the girl becomes the subject for a series of drawings and paintings titled “Automat.” Alternatively painted, drawn and filmed from behind and in profile, the girl is rendered from torso up, a half-figure, and appears like some immobile, haunted, not quite human creature.
In many of his works the main figure seems isolated, consciously set apart. Human figures can be seen at angles, their back to the viewer or their arms extended in some unknowable gesture, as in “The Wooden Skirt.” Rarely do the subject’s eyes meet those of the spectator. More commonly the gaze is averted, with characters looking sideways or downward, making them elusive and enigmatic.
A painting titled, “The Angel,” an impressive three meters in height, has a figure of undetermined gender painted in a light pink dress; the figure’s face is painted black. In “The Devil’s Dress,” painted in 2011, we see a semi-naked figure lying on the floor, their torso encased in a wooden or metal structure.
We have almost no idea what these characters are doing or thinking.
Are they participating in, or concentrated on some obscure task, or just lone figures in a kind of absurdist play? Why has Borremans painted his “angel’s” face black? Is the figure a character in a commedia dell’arte performance? Regardless of the origins and meaning of “The Angel,” the figure is both stately and beautiful.
Borremans’s sense of mystery is not only confined to the human figure.
A series of drawings and models titled “The House Of Opportunity,” apparently a comment on architecture, could just as easily be inspired by Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle.
In many of the drawings the main structure, the “house,” towers above the surrounding figures, an ominous- looking building that nobody enters and which offers no comfort.
Some of the scenarios appear to be staged, and there is a strong theatrical element to Borremans’s work. He regularly uses models and props for his paintings and films.
“To reenact or build an image I use props and an actor, from which I then try to make a composition.
I take a lot of photographs so I can see different angles and shades of light and color,” he said.
“The whole process is very experimental and sometimes I improvise, but usually I try to reach the image I have in my mind. Occasionally the image becomes more interesting than I intended, so I see the whole process as similar to a theater director who tries things out on stage,” he explained.
There is a sense of drama in Borremans’s works, yet it is understated.
The scenes and characters create a certain unease, but mainly because of their ambiguity. The uncertainty is further enhanced by the difficulty in placing scenarios in a specific place or time. Borremans’s color pallet is muted throughout, creating tableaux that could be placed in the early twentieth century, or further back in time.
For Borremans the subject is always an object. The staging of a work, the final image, serve to keep the viewer at a remove. Despite the theatrical element there are very few crowd scenes and little sense of movement. This is a stilled world, at times intriguing, but always concealed.