Michael Borremans

Read our feature on the Belgian artist, currently showing in Dallas and London, whose enigmatic works are full of contradiction, humour, horror, beauty and a cautious approach to truth, from the May 2015 issue

By Martin Herbert

The Devil’s Dress (II), 2011, oil on canvas, 75 × 124 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York & London, and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Black Mould / Disaster, 2015, oil on canvas, 83 x 71 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York & London, and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp The Angel, 2013, oil on canvas, 300 × 200 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York & London, and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

On the eastern outskirts of Ghent, in a far-from-glitzy residential street, there’s a narrow terraced house with a battered wooden service door. The doorbell reads ‘Borremans’, and the first-time visitor might accordingly do a double take, wondering how one of the leading figurative painters of his generation can operate from here. Then the artist, a dapper figure in his early fifties, unlocks the door, we edge around a Porsche, and the courtyard opens up in front of the concealed studio complex – one of two, alongside a remodelled nineteenth-century chapel elsewhere in the city – that Michaël Borremans converted by hand a couple of decades ago, before he became successful.

It’s nearly twilight, the close of the artist’s working day. Before these big windows lose the light, we visit a sequence of voluminous, well-organised rooms, neat warrens of worktables and shelves and tasteful raw-brick walls, including a ground-floor winter studio and, on the first floor, a double-height summer one. We cross the nook, complete with canvas backdrop and, right now, a querulous little stuffed animal, where Borremans takes the photographs that serve as the basis for his paintings. In another space, using packing materials and card, he builds the sculptural sets from which he makes his tight, dreamlike drawings, characterised by impossible incongruities of scale. One room, opening onto the courtyard, is dominated by a mint-condition vintage Mercedes S-Class, gleaming black. Somewhere along the way we pass the adult-size rabbit suit that Borremans claims sometimes to wear while painting.

The archetypal Borremans painting is a seductive enigma, a bouillabaisse of specificity, obscurity, anxiety, humour and great technique

The archetypal Borremans painting is a seductive enigma, a bouillabaisse of specificity, obscurity, anxiety, humour and great technique. In The Devil’s Dress (2011), a woman – assumedly, as one can’t see the face or body very well – lies on the ground, torso and thighs covered in what is less a dress than a polygonal piece of cardboard, painted red. While the title unnerves, what the sumptuous brushiness of the painting gives one to grip onto is at least partly art-historical – a conscious conversation with Manet in general and also Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1631). The painting somehow manages simultaneously to speak clearly and to stutter. It ties itself to a pedigree while registering a break; it conveys, with certitude, a problem about conveyance itself.

Sitting by a log fire, flanked by his guitars – inexpensive copies of a National Steel and a hollow-bodied jazzer’s instrument – Borremans is explaining how he first came to work in this structurally abstruse way. “It’s really a philosophical question about what truth can be. And truth is just as much in the lie as in something straightforward or honest. All of this came very organically for me from the way I perceived the world since I was a child: that there’s a variety of interpretations of something called ‘truth’. And I was always cautious about it. As an adolescent, that’s where my fascination for cinema came in. They build decors; they fake everything to make it seem real. And if they do it with that,” he continues, warming to his mistrust, “they do it with everything. To have it is to use it. Landing on the moon, wars – you never know. So therefore in my work I want to give information in a way that’s clearly incorrect, not fitting, out of place. I think that’s more honest.”

If you hear a strong note of pragmatism in this – if you can’t say what you can know, you can only say what you can’t – you’re not wrong. Borremans’s practice, as he unfurls it in conversation, amalgamates reaching in the dark and getting the job done; characterises, indeed, reaching in the dark as the job. And if you have to wear a bunny suit to paint, you wear the bunny suit. Sitting beside us as we talk is a recent canvas, a big work that packs a group-figure composition’s worth of complexity into a single character wearing an ominous, pointy, glossy black hood, isolated, as with most of Borremans’s work, on a voidlike ground. “There are always a lot of allusions in my work: here, the Catholic church, the Ku Klux Klan, ISIS, nuns, whatever. It’s not explicit, but it’s all there. But, you know, I cannot explain all this. In a very intuitive way, I reflect on what’s in our collective consciousness, and also art history. I find it a very interesting way of communicating – extremely loose, but still emotionally very efficient. I’m always thinking of the psychological impact of an image that I’m creating when I’ll show it, because you make a painting in the studio, but the act of painting is showing it – I’m aware, or I’m thinking about, the effect on a possible viewer. It’ll be different for everyone, but I want to decide on the direction it has.”

Borremans never lets you forget you’re looking at a painting. You’ll be drawn into the outright strangeness of what he’s done, then reminded that the interpretative rigmarole you’ve gone through is in the service of something that, objectively, has no meaning

Rewind through Borremans’s practice since the late 1990s – after he took a sabbatical from teaching and embarked on a make-or-break move towards being a serious artist – and you’ll find certain constants in that ‘direction’. Depictions of enigmatic pursuits bordering on Surrealism, for one thing: in The Pupils (2001), painted in the brownish austerity colours of Borremans’s early phase –.a degree of colour has bloomed in his art since – three men each disaffectedly probe decapitated heads. A dozen years later, in The False Head (2013), a lifelike portrait of a blonde woman, eyes closed, falls apart at the neck as it appears, impossibly, that she’s wearing a headcovering rubber mask. In Eating the Beard (2010), a woman appears to chew or spew a mass of brown, dribbling paint that we read, as per the title, as facial hair. In The Angel (2013), a tall woman (modelled by Belgian supermodel and actress Hannelore Knuts) stands in a pale pink formal dress or a nightdress, looking expressionlessly down, her blonde hair pulled back, her face slathered – voluntarily or not – in black paint. (One sees, notably, the edges of the studio backdrop: this is a setup, in more ways than one.) In The Son (2013), a boy, too, looks down, fibrous beams of white light shooting from his eyes – although those beams are, of course, just paint strokes; Borremans never lets you forget you’re looking at a painting. You’ll be drawn into the outright strangeness of what he’s done, then reminded that the interpretative rigmarole you’ve gone through is in the service of something that, objectively, has no meaning.

I mention to Borremans one interpretation of his work, by The Observer’s Laura Cumming: that its primary subject must be painting itself, because it sets up a situation that appears to have a before-and-after, and yet there can be none, because it’s a painting. He assents. “That was always the magic of painting for me. It’s a window to a space you cannot enter, and that’s partly what mystifies a painting. I was trained as an etcher – I’m starting to do it again, I was good at it when I was young – so I’m in the tradition of Rembrandt, Manet, Picasso. It’s a very old-fashioned idea, the artist-etcher, but I like it a lot. But I’m also an artist of my time,” – meaning, he says, postmodern relativism – “I lived through this period, I experienced it, took some luggage from it. My work would never be possible in preconceptual times.”

Indeed, a good deal of the pleasure of Borremans’s work is precisely that it maintains a foot in two camps. While a superb technician, balancing buttery handling with a chilly palette shot through with bursts of red and glowing with earth colours, he’s a figurative painter who does not, in the end, paint living figures. None of his people feel like people, they feel rather like proxies for a complicated emotional state or, again, for positions concerning truth and its discontents. And so his work typically feels on edge, rarely conservative. Indeed, it rarely feels fully anything, preferring restive hybridising. The ominous is leavened with absurd or black comedy – sometimes explicitly, as in the self-explanatory Man Wearing a Bonnet (2005), where the humour comes not only from the floppy-eared baby-blue hat this adult is wearing but from his deeply pensive expression, and at other times subtly.

When we meet, Borremans has just finished a rare commission, a painting of someone’s horse – done, inevitably, from a photograph. “The horse is looking at us,” he points out. “The only work I’ve done that looks at you, and it’s a horse, but it’s like a human. I find that funny. In fact, my work has become more humorous in general lately, because I’m more aware of the necessity of it. We tend to take art seriously and it’s a very serious business, but humour is a crucial element. Then again, I see humour in a lot of works. I see it in Vermeer,” – Borremans’s voice gains the venerating breathiness it has when he talks of classic painting – “though much more in Chardin.” (Compare the latter’s Child with a Top, circa 1738, with the quiet bizarreness of Borremans’s Man Looking Down at His Hand, 2007.)

What fascinates me, as with any artistic practice that depends on a psychological delving that can lead to greater and greater self-understanding, is how the artist continues – how it doesn’t all become rote illustration, how one moves on, shark-like, in order not to sink. Borremans, it’s clear, has gone through a few phases already and dropped them: phases of style, phases of elucidation. At the outset of our conversation, I mention that some of his work – a body of paintings in which a figure is seemingly cut off at the waist (and, in the bizarre 2005 film Weight, rotates implausibly on a table) – resonates with statements he has made to the effect that he feels humans aren’t free, and that this might constitute a reading. “That was a long time ago,” says Borremans flatly. Last year, he told Art + Auction that “I have a statement to make. It’s been finding its way all these years.” What one finds, visiting him currently, is a strange balance, lacking a neat tagline, exerting discipline to set an image loose, what it might add up to – beyond questions of truth – perhaps held in abeyance.

You sense that he does and doesn’t know where it’s going, that this might constitute a professional ideal

In his case, as a modern painter, the route into this unknown is to use non-painterly media. “My basic material is a photograph, or a film still, which I make myself. I film or photograph the model or situation, the props and the background, and then I’m painting them already. The lights, the composition, the way the subject is placed and the frame, it’s for a painting already. A lot of contemporary painting looks like photography, whereas my photographs look like paintings – the camera serves to make a painterly composition. And then also my paintings refer to statues. Someone said to me once, when I showed him my early drawings, you’re a sculptor, and for the last ten years – secretly, I mean, because nobody is waiting for it – I’ve done experiments with sculpture, though most of them fail. When I made Weight, I originally wanted to have a sculpture made, turning around like a doll. But it wasn’t good enough, so we used a very disciplined twelve-year-old girl, a ballerina, cut a hole in the table and used a motor. If you make a film that shows the sculpture, you can direct exactly how the viewer sees it. It’s a form of control. That’s why most of my paintings are very simple, too – when a painting becomes complex, for me it’s very hard to maintain control over it.”

For Borremans, the system is working. He’s genuinely excited when he leads me over to a table covered in a series of new, small, disturbing paintings of dancing figures in, unusually, a kind of landscape, albeit one that looks like a tabletop tableau featuring model trees. “These are going to get much worse. More flesh, the dress is going to go up. The second series”, he says, “will be really gross.” You sense that he does and doesn’t know where it’s going, that this might constitute a professional ideal. We go back to the fireside and talk about whether filmmaking – he has some “nice ideas in the drawers, but I have to get in touch with the Hollywood people” – is a release for him, as it is for, say, Wilhelm Sasnal. He says no, that music used to be his release. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, when I was playing in bands, I needed the music to work better in my studio. After that, you’re reset. I play guitar, but I think singing is the best thing – it lets the devil out.” The light has fully gone now. Out of the darkness, the horse gazes down at us.

Michaël Borremans: As Sweet As It Gets, a 15-year survey of drawings, paintings and films, is at the Dallas Museum of Art through 5 July 2015; Michaël Borremans: Black Mould is on view at David Zwirner, London, through 14 August 2015. 

22 June 2015