In “As sweet as it gets,” Michaël Borremans current exhibition at BOZAR in Brussels, the artist appears as a master of execution, whose talent spans painting, drawing, and film in equal measure. The Belgian artist, known for denying his subjects individuality and reducing them to objects, presents a body of work that is intensely individualistic and instantly recognisable.
To the first-time viewer, Borremans’ paintings may appear brutal. Standing on a par with, and inspired by the great masters, his subjects are both imposing and archetypal; but their invariably averted gaze and anonymous quality prevent them from becoming icons. The Angel (2013) is a heroine, grand and strong, but with her downcast eyes and face blackened by paint, she suggests death, rather than life-giving force as woman and angel. Man holding his nose (2007) is a shadow-clad painting where darkness is used to conceal the object – and subject – instead of enhancing them. With Borremans, portraits become studies, sessions of pure observation, where identity is deliberately severed.
But while his paintings encompass death and a kind of melancholy, Borremans has always been adamant that his work is not meant to be nostalgic or poignant. There is a ready dichotomy here: mortality reappears throughout his oeuvre, not just in Angel, but also in The Bodies (I) (2006), an ambiguous canvas alluding to Manet’s Dead Toreador (1864), where space and occasion remain unclear, but there appears to be a ray of life beaming from the figure in the foreground. It’s impossible to tell what reigns here, life or death. His paintings of kitsch porcelain figurines make the other transition, from an inanimate state to the status of being painted, and therefore coming alive: “the painting is alive – as painting,” the artist claims.
Borremans moves between his techniques and idiosyncrasies seamlessly, experimenting with medium and scale. What strikes the viewer is the extremity of the shift. The same, or at least metaphysically connected figures, emerge on grand canvases, where they measure up to four meters, only to reappear later in a detailed drawing where their sheer presence is marked, but severely undermined, disfigured, as it were.
The connection is particularly striking when passing from film to painting, where Borremans’ films are striking examples of tableaux vivants. It starts with The Storm (2006), a practically motionless motion picture with three disguised figures and no narrative. The film is a playground for light and time, where the artist observes and captures his subjects in a state of in-betweenness: between stillness and expected motion, between time and its absence. Borremans himself describes it as “just three people waiting.”
Taking Turns (2009) presents a slow progression, but the visual narrative is compelling by virtue of its mystery – the characters seem to interchange, become objects in turn, morph into each other, drawing a thin line between reality and artificiality. Further on the wall, several studies of the same figures can be seen, painted and framed as canvases. Their multiplicity attests to their existence as objects, potentially infinite, and the malleable definition of form.
As Borremans’ first comprehensive retrospective, “As sweet as it gets” does the job well: it presents a progression without sticking too much to chronology, and elucidates the links that permeate the artist’s medium, and concept, in a flowing and logical manner. The artist’s appeal, it seems, is universal.
“As sweet as it gets” is on view at the BOZAR in Brussels, Belgium, through August 3, 2014. The exhibit will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum (2014/2015) and the Dallas Museum of Art (2015).