Recently closed, Natalia LL’s show at Ernst Museum in Budapest, titled Opus Magnum, was an exhibition that offered me the privilege of a double and downright exciting discovery. Thus, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter an artist of which, to my embarrassment, I knew almost nothing about (and seeing the show I realized that I probably should have known much more) and an institution I knew absolutely nothing about (and seeing the show I realized that I should have visited it earlier). Also, Opus Magnum starkly reminded me that a well done retrospective exhibition, albeit unavoidably incomplete and fragmentary, is probably the best way to meaningfully approach an artist.

            The currently functioning Ernst Museum is the heir, so to speak, of an important and vibrant private artistic venue, build up around the more or less coherent, yet undeniably important Ernst collection of modern Hungarian (and not only) art. Founded in 1912 by the collector Ernst Lajos, the venue hosted also some of Budapest’s most significant modern art shows between the World Wars. Bringing together exhibition spaces, a cinema, as well as artist studios, the place was one of the vibrant hubs of Budapest cultural life at the time. Although the collection had a rather sad destiny, being dismantled after 1937, the building still functions today as an exhibition venue, hosting contemporary art shows, as part of the Budapest Kunsthalle (Mücsarnok), yet is by far less known as the latter institution itself or as its main venue in Dozsa Gyorgy street.

Natalia LL is one of the prominent Polish artists of the last decades, being active mainly in the fields of photography, performance and video and approaching those media from a perspective that was mostly considered to be feminist. However, as we’ll further see, this labelling, although perfectly justified from the very perspective of the artist, who joined the so called International Feminist Movement in the mid-seventies, not only fails to account for the complexity of her endeavours along the decades, but is also misleading, as it does not comprehensively grasp some of the defining characteristics of the artist’s impressive production, such as the intertwining of plain humour with somewhat complicated irony, the constantly displayed fascination for image as icon and as tool used to provoke the occurrence of beauty or the apparently dull, yet essential and obliquely critical and self – critical aestheticism.

A larger than life character, Natalia LL, (born in 1937, in Zywiec, as Natalia Lach – Lachowicz) was also an active figure in the Neo – avant – garde movements of the sixties and the seventies, as well as a make – things – happen – person on the Polish cultural scene. Despite her participation, mostly during the seventies, at rather highly ranked contemporary art events, such as the Sao Paolo biennale, she never actually attained the status of international art star. Nevertheless, she is an artist with a career that spans some fifty years of intelligent, sometimes brilliant and always stimulating artistic production.

The spaces available at the Ernst Museum are not the usual, gigantic volumes of a large contemporary art museum or Kunsthalle. Therefore, a smart selection of the works that were to feature in the Opus Magnum retrospective had been crucial for its meaningfulness. The artists herself choose to curate the show and did it remarkably and, I would say, surprisingly well. A well balanced mix of video works, video documented performances and photographic works was displayed, comprising a comprehensive image of Natalia LL’s decades long artistic activity.

Probably the most straightforwardly telling work of all, with respect to the topics encompassed by her art, is Natalia ist Sex, displayed as a text on the wall. When one comes closer to the wall, he or she actually discovers that the letters of the text are made out of more or less pornographic images featuring, presumably, the artist and a male companion. And, indeed, the issue of sexuality is placed at the core of LL’s artistic production. There is hardly a single art piece in the show that do not refer to this topic, while the balance between feminist suggestions and aestheticization / hedonism / sensual enthusiasm is perpetually fragile.

This is, for example, made plainly visible by works that come together under the title / concept of Consumer Art. Developed mostly in the seventies, the series includes a video of the young, naked and beautiful female artist licking the liquid content of a plate, the grainy aspect of the film being unable to tame either the sensuality, the irony or the gross look (for shy or “righteous” eyes) of the scene. Closely related to such works are the panels composed of some twenty photos of a young woman eating a banana, or rather using it for an ambiguous teasing game, as the female character is depicted in somewhat over – staged, sexually alluding poses. The black and white images are very “clean”, depleted of any unnecessary details, in a Pop – like manner, not totally dissimilar to the one put at work in Andy Warhol’s so called portraits. However, in the end, they present the viewer with an almost formalist aesthetics, which essentially is at odds with both a feminist stance and with the semantics of the classic pin – up. The black and white images also allude, in a sophisticated and ironic way, to the probably false value of noblesse, many times naively associated with the traditional types of photography.

            Following Consumer Art, Natalia LL produced a series of photographic works, in large, almost monumental format, coining them as post – consumer art. If the dialectics of its semantics are pretty much similar to that displayed in the previously produced tongue – in – cheek images and videos mentioned above, the visual result is even more ambiguous and startling. The photos present the face of the artist in sexually alluding, kind of seductive poses, with traces of white liquid on or around the lips. The pornographic reference is more than obvious, yet something in the images makes them uncomfortably hard to grasp, as they tantalizingly avoid being clean cut porn shots.

Thus, the traces of white substance on the artist’s / performer’s / subject’s face are accompanied, so to speak, by traces of pathos and of getting transfixed, as her expressions most of the times suggest. There are ambiguous facial expressions, which become more and more ambiguous the longer one actually scrutinizes the images. Their pornographic nature, that appears to be so obvious at a first glance, gets blurred, at least in some of them. In the end, these latter remain probably the most impressive images in the show, as they are composed with the formal care one would expect from a high end fashion or life style magazine photos. In short, they prove to be far too arty (i. e. aesthetically aware) to be convincing as kinky or trashy porn.

Turning things on their head is something that artists are somewhat supposed or expected to do; it is also something that Natalia LL is particularly good at. Take the banana, for example, an obvious phallic avatar, used as such by the Polish artist, as mentioned above. However, in a video piece such as the 1994 Brunhilda’s Dream as well as in its corollary, the Anatomy of a Room installation, from 1995, which featured in Opus Magnum, the banana is pierced by a sword, which rhythmically cuts through the fleshy fruit until it finally breaks apart. The classic phallic form is ironically turned into a vagina, while the mighty combination of sex and violence turns almost hilarious.

Characters like Brunhilda and other more or less mythological or mythologized personifications of the prototype of the smart and strong minded, but also sexually overt and finally, by virtue of these very characteristics, utterly dangerous woman are also recurrent in LL’s artistic endeavours. A performance, again from 1995, is called Brunhilda III and its photographic documentation was also present in the retrospective at the Ernst Museum. We see the artist barely dressed, wearing high boots, a sort of mask and flowery crown, sword and shield in hands, at the edge of a forest. A sexually aggressive, strong and presumably menacing woman seems to confront the viewer. However, the character gradually looses all its symbolic might, as one realizes that this all about amounting clichés. From a presumably feminist perspective, both romanticist automatisms and pornographic props are critically approached and deconstructed, apparently reduced to semantic rubble. But the actual ramifications of the thinking process sparked by the vaudeville Brunhilda go deeper, I believe. Thus, what is really important here is not just noticing that (a form of) Romanticism is brought together with (a form of) pornography, but realizing that they kind of belong together, that the juxtaposition appears natural. They are both products of the same type of cultural, political, but also erotic desires, in which oppression could probably be rooted in, yet what is certain is that they are unnervingly durable and irritatingly polymorphous. In the end, the laugh might just be on (a form of) feminism, just as well as (a form of) shame could tentatively be cast upon pornography or corny Romanticism.

            As we’ve seen so far, Natalia is indeed sex, i.e. body. Her works are constantly using her body, yet investing it with the power to metamorphose and to assume various roles and identities, rather than testing its limits, subjecting it to rigorous trials. Thus, if the use of her body is more or less driven by feminist ideology, the Polish artist is closer to Cindy Sherman’s deployment of the body than to Abramovic’s. Many times, costumes are frequently used by Natalia LL and she often deploys masks in order to produce either glossy or softly morbid photographic images that seem to allude to an existentialist atmosphere and mindset. The images of the body that has long left behind its prime of youth, strength and beauty are often used in combination with masks, in order to produce such effects, which are augmented by deploying specifically charged symbolic props such as the couch in the recent series of photographs titled Birth According to the Body.

Nevertheless, we can also see a more direct and quite specific mode of using the body in several sixties and seventies videos present in the Ernst Museum show, such as Impressions, from 1973. The camera is soon fixed on the artist’s breasts, which the artist is, partly erotically, partly frantically, shaking, rubbing, squeezing and massaging with some white substance that looks like milk. Again, the body as object of sexual desire is somewhat devoid of its sensuality via humour. However, the key word here is “somewhat”: sensuality is never actually neutralized and the tension between lust and goofiness is the key and powerful characteristic of such works.

But, in other video pieces, the body is used to signify differently. The naked female body is, for example, place on a sandy surface, partly covered by the inorganic material and placed amidst some vegetal debris, its movements being slow, but hardly erotic. What one sees in such fragments are lust, nostalgia and death being brought together: such a strong triangle so often used to build a lyrical stance. The surprise is, in the context of the exhibition of a truly ironic artist, to see that the lyricism actually gets generated out of an almost naïve, loosely sentimental endeavour. In cultural terms, what is probably most strikingly shown by this is that a genuine Romanticist vein survives in the artist’s anthropological universe, whether we (or her, for that matter) like it or not. It sort of proves that Romanticism, as socio – cultural construct (and just as other major construct of this kind), was not going to die out but with the demise of the very modern world that it emerged from. And, in the seventies, I guess that wasn’t the case yet …

One should not mistake: Natalia LL’s art is far from being flawless. Its more or less relevant weaknesses do not require a lot of reflective effort to uncover. It can sometimes be a bit gratuitously spectacular, it can sometimes get dangerously close to pointless exhibitionism, it can sometimes fall short of conceptual coherence and especially poignancy. Opus Magnum retrospective is an honest enough exhibition not to try to completely hide or deny these shortcomings and a smart enough show to minimize them. In the end, what one is left with is a definitely impressive, strong and complex artist, whose production provocatively, almost emphatically leaves one to choose between raising her or his eyebrows in admiration or in contempt.

For more images of the artist’s works, go to http://www.nataliall.com.

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/