Eating the Beard is the title of the recent retrospective show of Michael Borremans at Mucsarnok Budapest, which brings together some one hundred works of the Belgian artist, comprising works produced in various media, ranging from painting, which is rightfully perceived as his medium of choice, to drawing, video and small scale installations. Curated by the reputed Hungarian curator Petranyi Zsolt, the exhibition is another episode in the institution’s more or less coherent programme of hosting rather large scale, comprehensive and compelling presentations of influential contemporary artists, especially of those whose influence have been or is fruitfully felt by the artistic milieu in Central and Eastern Europe (whatever that might mean). Among previous such events, one can recall Luc Tuymans’s challenging and witty retrospective or Mircea Cantor’s solo show a few years ago.

Michael Borremans is now an artist in his late forties, living and working in the rather small, quite charming and culturally active city of Gent. Although academically trained mainly as photographer, his international fame, or, to be more precise, European recognition –since the artist is still not widely acknowledged in the U. S.– is mostly due to his contributions to the media of painting and drawing, which he constantly uses since the mid-nineties. His painting, especially, was largely viewed as an effort to meaningfully put at work traditional means of expression used by the practitioners of the medium and to produce contemporary relevant painting while using painterly approaches that relate to old masters such as Manet, Velasquez or van Dyck. Sign of historical nostalgia or not, the sheer pleasure or manipulating the painterly matter or the drawing charcoal in order to obtain visually seductive results has become, for many in the contemporary art world, an essential feature of his art.

Commenting on the show’s title, Petranyi writes: “As we know, hair is indigestible. Cats cough up the hair they swallow while cleaning themselves… Therefore, as we see now, the title of Michael Borremans’s exhibition stands for the <almost impossible>”. However, when one looks at the actual painting that borrows its title to the show, depicting a young girl presumably trying to swallow something that looks like hair, it is not the attempt to realize something that is almost impossible that comes to one’s mind. Rather, an existential, hallucinatory nausea is suggested, as the girl might be perceived just as well as vomiting, for example. That nausea is subtly pervading his entire body of work, while ideas of manipulation, unease, silent and ambiguous danger, cruelty, frailty of human condition and of memory are composing the semantic synopsis of Borremans’s art.

In his paintings, the depicted figures strangely appear as never actually finished, yet almost always polished, somewhat emphatically shiny. It is as if a craftsman would frantically glaze an incompletely shaped piece of ceramics, not having the patience to get the shaping process to its expected conclusion. The eerie resemblance between flesh and porcelain or even marble texture, between the human forms and the realm of the inanimate, resemblance which is not observed, but rather proclaimed by Borremans in his paintings, is a key feature of his painterly language and of his understanding of human existence. Moreover, in his works, be them paintings, drawings or video pieces, the human being is presented either as statue (monumental or decorative) or as puppet, hardly ever as a living being mastering his or her destiny, being in control of his or her live or mental universe. The human being is manoeuvred and designed, is engineered and corrected, is acting out of meaningless automatism, in other words is much more object (particularly, an object upon which power is exerted in an almost foucauldian manner) than subject. The silent and aloof workers in Pupils, probably one of his best works to date, in  their neutral overalls, passionlessly shaping or retouching what seem to be mannequin heads constitute a perfect example of how Borremans understands to approach human condition.

Exquisitely lonely, so to speak, especially when it comes to female figures, like in A2 or The Skirt II, his characters strangely imply that they are not alone; they just calmly strive at epitomizing loneliness, but also imply the presence of surveillance and manipulation. Even when the characters are almost monumentally singular in the painterly composition, they are frequently represented with their back turned to the spectator, who becomes the eye gazing from behind, from the shadows, presumably the eye of the perpetrator or of  the guardian. A step further, in works such as the two versions of The Pendant, a woman’s hair is tied and pulled up vertically, making the characters perfect epitomes of the lifeless puppet hanging at the end of an all controlling string. Thus, after looking at some of his paintings in this category long enough, what one disturbingly realizes is that he or she is unwillingly put in the position of the bearer of menace, of voyeur or of witness to the end result of the process by which the being looses his or her soul (which is the same as loosing his or her life).

Many of Borremans’ paintings and drawings refer, in a more or less direct manner, to the issue of death. His human figures are often depicted in states and in bodily postures that can be just as easily associated with sleep (as the title of his Sleeper painting, for example, directly suggest) or with death. Along with the Sleeper, works like The nude or The case, also present in the Mucsarnok display, perfectly illustrate this ambiguity. The nude presents the viewer with the image of a naked young woman, lying on her back, eyes closed, in a (chromatically) cold environment. It is a bizarre mix between pre-Raphaelite – like drama, involving a Dante Gabriel Rossetti type of Ofelia, and the intriguing, almost cynical coldness of a scene from the CSI TV series. However, all the sensuality has vanished from this body, while the sensuousness of paint is highly poignant. What almost immediately and certainly involuntarily came to my mind as I was watching it was the frightened Haley Joel Osment in the 1999 Sixth Sense picture, as he whispers to the child psychologist interpreted by Bruce Willis: “I see dead people!…”.  The impression lasted in my mind throughout the show and so did the feeling that in Borremans’s universe people are lifeless and matter is alive.

I don’t think it is by chance that associations with movies are tempting when confronting Borremans’s artworks, even, or especially, those which are not video pieces. That is because it seems pretty obvious to me that another crucial rhetoric instrument present in Borremans’ work is theatricality. All his paintings and drawings are somewhat staged, in a way a director or a stage designer might compose a tableaux, as they embed a potential for narrative and for drama. That theatricality is mostly evident in his drawings from The German series or in other works on paper such as his Square of Despair, in which several delicately rendered silhouettes of dead horses are carefully aligned in rows on the ground, while undisturbed people pass by the hallucinatory scene. The Belgian artist seems fascinated both with the man’s uncanny availability to slaughter living beings, as well as with the humans’ sick propensity to assign heroic, epic or sublime motivations and dimensions to their murderous acts.

The sublime and the memory are obliquely approached by Borremans as he deals with monumentality and monuments, which constitute yet another crucial topic in his oeuvre. Thus, projects –or rather sketches– for inexistent and impossible or, at least, highly improbable monuments are recurrent in his works. The above mentioned The German project is a perfect example in this regard. In the drawing The German (part two), a perfectly bourgeois looking clerk or, why not?, intellectual is playing with little objects that look like red dots and retain all his attention. The neutral man is totally oblivious that some other people are regarding (in awe?, fearful?, full of admiration?) his huge image which appears as being projected on an enormous wall. A version of the work in the form of a small scale model for a huge screening in a sort of a plaza was also exhibited at Mucsarnok, with a short video of the man in a suit actually screened within a small glass box attached to the wall.

As it is plain to see, for Borremans, the issue of scale is always fundamental when it comes to monumentality, sufferance and memory. Too big people relate with too small figures so often in his works. A Gulliver – like world is constructed in his images, only it is one with a tremendous potential for cold blooded cruelty. His projected “monuments” overwhelm by far the dimensions of their potential viewers, making one question whether the role of the monument is actually to be seen and understood or just to simply render humans humble and insignificant, to forcefully reshape their memories or to brainwash them. And so, the Belgian’s images make the viewer reflect upon the possibility that all real monuments, at some level, act just like that.

Seeing his video pieces is the best way to understand that Michael Borremans is fundamentally a painter. Each and every possible still from his “films” could be a scene painted by him. Although the image is moving, that visual flow provokes, first and foremost, a sensation of stillness or, better said, stiffness. If the narrative is always uncannily present in his paintings and drawing, it paradoxically faints precisely in his video works. It seems like Borremans is using the camera to investigate the theatre’s scene, while he is painting to construct the actual play.

Never explicit, yet never actually esoteric, the artist from Gent belongs to the same “family of artists” as Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans or, maybe yet on a lesser level of quality, Wilhelm Sasnal. They all use veils and they are all careful to make those veils transparent enough to not discourage the spectator from approaching their art. They all use history to shed a light on something they consider essential about the (presumably transhistorical) human being. And they all use what one might call “elusive painting” in a hopeful, oblique and somewhat perverse attempt to save the metaphorical power and the relevance of the medium under the circumstances of the contemporary world, a relevance one can never be totally sure that they still truly believe in, the way heroic macho painters like Baselitz or Brandl most probably do.

For photos of Michael Borremans works, go to www.zeno-x.com/artists/michael_borremans.htm and  http://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/11/

Advertisements