by John Chilver
published in Turps Banana, number 11, London, Spring 2012, ISSN 1749 3994, p70-74
People in Michaël Borremans’ pictures do odd things. Or have odd things done to them. It’s hard to say which. For instance, in The Prodigy (2007) two young women seen waist deep in a tank of oil – or something similar – seem to be each holding a head in their hands which they are perhaps dipping into the oil. There’s a lot of guesswork here, and there has to be. Walking round Borremans’ recent retrospective Eating the Beard at the Taidehalli Helsinki, I started out enjoying the technical prowess but ended up wondering why I should care about these figures and their shadowy shenanigans, except on account of them being gorgeously painted. Beautiful painting is not nothing. But on its own it is – as management-speak would grimly have it – suboptimal. Borremans is a very stylish painter in oils in a brisk, brushy, wet-on-wet way, a bit like John Singer Sargent minus the sunlight and the ruling classes. And it’s not as if he’s short on ideas either. Far from it. The problem for me is how the paintings think those ideas and in particular how they think them through the figures and their dealings. At which point it’s worth asking: When are these figures? What century and what decade do they inhabit? It plainly ain’t the twenty-first century. Mostly they wear cod-1940s or 50s office apparel, in a world of greys and sepias that is suggestive of black and white photos though without resulting in photorealism. Even if you took the view that trying to ‘periodise’ the paintings in this way is pointless or too literal, it’d still be undeniable that the paintings spell out a palpable sense of retrospection, if not nostalgia. This is comparable to Neo Rauch. Like the boiler-suited mechanics and earnest pilot-types who strut, toil and frown in Rauch’s pictures, the men and women in Borremans’ images inhabit a world that is part Kafkaesque bureaucratic shadowplay, part tv docu-history, part fictionalized collective memory.
The fixation with a fantasized past does soon grate. It’s not just the hokum of its retrospection. It’s more that the Kafkaesque tactic of allegorising the opacity and violence of a mythic institutional world is both far too easy and is assuredly no longer representative of the life we live today, which is portrayed not by Kafka’s novels and stories but in books such as Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism. So we arrive at one way of interpreting Borremans: the lugubrious retrospection and periodisation apparent in the paintings is not actually a nostalgia for any past era, but rather for an artistic method exemplified by Kafka. And by the way, I’m encouraged to emphasize a key link to Kafka by the inclusion in the show of a beautiful drawing (The Swimming Pool) which depicts a shirtless man with a text about a punishment inscribed onto his chest – surely an overt reference to Kafka’s brilliant, merciless story In the Penal Colony. The suspicion is that Borremans’ period-myth is symptomatic of an inability to think – or even to forensically mythologize – the periodicity of the here and now. This is reminiscent of recent Booker prizes in which entire shortlists have been composed solely of novels situated in the past – as if the challenge of placing a story in the present is simply too arduous for the so-called literary novelists and their publishers. Borremans shares in this precise evasion: on the one hand, he relies on a kind of historicity as vague period myth; but on the other hand, he seems unwilling to address the present historically – surely a far more demanding and necessary task.
A consistent technique used is the old master one of painting over a grey or grey-brown ground, often a warm grey. Lighter and darker tones are then swiftly and expertly floated over the midtoned ground. There’s not much experience of colour to be had here. But there is some. One highlight of the show is a 2010 picture of hands with one dipped in red, the other in green paint. In works like these Borremans achieves a remarkable controlled lightness of touch, which is a rare pleasure. Indeed the imagery of this picture seems precisely to want to allegorise its own fluid touch. Allegories of painting, then? Is that a good way to interpret Borremans’ repeated scenes of figures – usually female and dressed for secretarial work – who appear waist deep in an inky or oily dark liquid? This is a trope the artist returns to again and again in works like The Prodigy, as already described, and in related pictures like A2 (2004), One (2003), On Display (2007) and The Lid (2007). It’s hard to avoid a connection here with Richard Wilson’s celebrated 1987 sump oil installation 20:50, in which visitors are channelled along a wedge-shaped walkway through a tank of shiny black oil, so that the horizontal surface of the viscous liquid is positioned near waist level, and where visitors can imagine themselves becoming immersed, much as Borremans’ figures are. Should we think of the relation between bodies and fluids in Borremans as somehow suggestive of the experience of painting? That sounds too pat. The figures in the paintings are absorbed in acts, situations, predicaments, rituals or routines – I struggle to find a suitable word that can evoke the characteristic ambiguity here between activity and passivity. The question is, I think, whether these operations are merely the caprices of the artist and therefore just authorial conceits; or whether any world is convincingly imagined which is capable of generating agents whose motivations might bring about these rituals and predicaments. Put more simply, the question is: whose rituals are they? Those of Borremans the painterly puppetmaster? Or of the figures themselves or their possible persecutors? If it’s the former then the obvious problem is that the figures are thereby reduced to evacuated allegorical puppets. The answer, I think, needs to be and ought to be the latter but doesn’t seem convincingly to be so. The paintings seem too willing to state their riddles without going any further, like a scene-setting for a story without a narrative arc. The paintings, in other words, suffer from a certain narrative deficiency. They are certainly consistent in their portrayal of situations in which figures appear encased, constricted or immobilised and somehow tasked with duties and chores. And all is exquisitely rendered in polished chiaroscuro. But we never get any sense of the hierarchies that set the tasks and dominate the figures. It’s impossible to say how metaphorical or how allegorical the pictures want to be. There’s no doubting the cleverness of the works and their titles. But the unmitigated obscurity leads to me to wonder whether there’s much more than cleverness – and a yearning for a genuinely tractable subject – going on here.
The question of narrative, or the lack of it, can be linked to a larger conversation about the fate of contemporary figure painting. Like all figure painters today, Borremans faces what we might call the (post-)Richter problem: how to depict the figure if not by reference to a photograph? The Richter method, of course, is to base the figure explicitly on a photographic source and paint it so as to indicate the photographic qualities of its origin, especially the blurring. It’s worth emphasizing that what is effectively discarded here is drawing as a means of constructing a figure. It’s also worth stating the obvious point that in much of Richter’s figure painting, such as his 18th October 1977 series, the emergence of narrative depends upon the photographic link to a referent. There are broadly three alternative pragmatic answers to the question: 1. Base the figure on a photograph but drown the source in the paint process to veil or outweigh the trace of the photographic origin (Tuymans, Doig, Sasnal, etc.) 2. Base it on observation by eye – but nobody does that anymore and Lucian Freud has departed. Or 3. Base it on a subjective affirmation of stylistic savvy as such, through knowing concoction or invention or hybridisation (Inka Essenhigh, George Condo, Peter Macdonald, John Currin, Enrico David, Sophie von Hellerman, etc.). And maybe it is right to think of this third alternative as proposing the persistence of drawing in some attenuated form. In the abstract these approaches might all sound unpromising – all of them saturated. What’s intriguing then about Borremans’ more recent paintings in this show is that they attempt a kind of figurative realism that sits alongside what we could loosely call ‘photorealist painting’, but without succumbing to the authority of the photograph. His monumental single figure painting with the characteristically strategic title The Nude (2010) is hugely impressive. No page-sized reproduction can communicate the effect of this vast figure on canvas. Bearing in mind Giacometti’s lifelong obsession with the distance between observing eye and observed figure – and the related question of the apparent size of the figure within the observer’s visual field – it becomes clear that the power of Borremans’ The Nude has to do with the apparent size being awkward: the figure is too big yet still relatively distant. We look along the body of the intensely foreshortened female nude, who is pictorially upended with the head at the base of the canvas. The eyes are shut, the lighting harsh, the surrounding surfaces entirely devoid of personal effects. There is more than a hint of a corpse on a table awaiting an autopsy, nevertheless it remains an image of a living, breathing person posed by the artist. So we are still very much within the scope of an artistic conceit, but one that succeeds much better than Borremans’ more overtly ‘creative’ pseudo-allegories. I prefer The Nude to works like The Prodigy because the former tackles its clichés (meaning Manet and Richter in particular and the European tradition of the nude in general) head on, embraces its thorough conventionality and thereby arrives at something subtly unfamiliar. It seems to me a convincingly twenty-first century painting.
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