A trip to deliver a painting to the Irving Museum of Art quickly took a turn in purpose when I read about an event at the Dallas Museum of Art. An exhibition by Belgian artist, Michaël Borremans, was scheduled to open and I have admired his work for years. In my graduate thesis, I wrote about the influence of one of his paintings, Four Fairies, in my work and yearned to see his work in person as opposed to only viewing paintings online and in books. Learning about the exhibit made me deliriously happy, and then came the icing on the cake…the artist would be present for a “conversation” with the show’s curator and all I needed was a ticket to attend. WAIT A MINUTE. I could sit right in front of an international superstar, one of my all time favorite living artists? For 5 bucks?
Juggling work with motherhood can be challenging…I’m often riddled with guilt when choosing work or an art related activity over spending time with my precious daughters. However, I almost never leave town without them, and I schedule my studio time around their schedules. Surely one quick trip to Dallas was acceptable, right?
Here is the information I found when researching March events at the Dallas Museum of Art: “The DMA hosts the United States premier of the internationally traveling exhibition Michaël Borremans: As Sweet as It Gets, co-organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Center for Fine Arts, Brussels (BOZAR). The exhibition brings together the artist’s paintings, drawings, and films from over the last fifteen years in a single survey. Join contemporary Belgian artist Michaël Borremans in conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Grove, curator of the exhibition and the DMA’s former Senior Curator of Special Projects & Research, for insights into Borremans’ life and work.”
After about 30 seconds of consideration, I purchased a ticket and knew I would somehow get there. Those with a ticket for the artist talk could also get a sneak peek of the exhibit two days prior to the official opening. This was truly as sweet as it gets. Making the quick trip even more fun (and economical) was a childhood friend’s offer to let me stay overnight.
At this point in my career, listening to a great artist speak about his work, process, inspiration, and use of materials, is a vital boon to my ideas and work. And if that sounds dramatic, I will use an example provided by the artist himself during the conversation. He spoke of Goya, and of seeing Los Caprichos as a teen. The moment he saw the etchings, something in him shifted and his ideas for his future were altered.
Artistic influences profoundly shape an artist’s life and work. I find art’s extreme power to influence is difficult to describe. I, too, am influenced by artists and by Goya in particular. When studying art history in Madrid as a 20-year-old college student, I visited Goya’s work at the Prado. The paintings, both those with disguised darkness and those with overt malevolence, lured me in and pushed me away. I’ve never been able to shake the power those paintings held over their viewers. Since then, I see the work of Goya at every opportunity, which is rare, as I do not travel often beyond the United States. But I did get to see those etchings, Los Caprichos, in Santa Fe, NM last year and the genius of Goya startled, scared and bewildered me again. His ability to capture the human condition – both the comedy and the darkest of human behavior – is unparalleled. Perhaps this partly explains why I am drawn to the work of Borremans. He simply presents complex and dark insights to being human. His paintings are alluring, confounding, disturbing and provoking, in a beautiful and violent presentation.
Before I share more about the artist’s comments, let me take you on an abbreviated tour of the exhibit. Not to boast, but I do believe I was the first visitor allowed in…okay, I was a little too excited, but what the heck, it’s fun being passionate and eager. Anyway, upon entrance, I accidentally rushed through the first room, wanting to be alone for a moment. As a longtime admirer of Edouard Manet, I first noticed a piece titled, The Whistler, 2009, which is reminiscent of Manet’s The Flute Player, 1866. The body position and brushwork between the pieces are similar but Borreman’s painting is darker, not just in hue, but in mood, in message.
Injury to the body is common in his work. There are burns, lacerations, detached body parts and truncated torsos in impossible positions. Often, when my eye could detect no injury, there were aggrieves marks such a rude stab by the paintbrush to the eye in Colombine, 2008.
The figures should look uncomfortable but their downcast faces appear neutral, lacking any expression or response to the awkward position, or injury they display. It is as if the people in Borremans’ paintings become objects, and are dehumanized conveying a dark message about being human. Many of the figures are painted in the same tones as the background space making the bodies appear to be the same importance, or the same substance, as their surroundings. I also immediately noticed several paintings of seemingly simple objects. A branch, a mask, a toy, figurines. Whether these objects stand alone in a painting or are presented with human figures, they dominate the space.
For example, in Man Wearing a Bonnet, 2005, an inversion exists where the man becomes a prop used to display a bonnet. The bonnet is oddly alluring with floppy little ears built in and various paintings of the same subject provide multiple views of the bonnet. Is this what deconstructionists do with writing? Strip away meaning, take apart notions, and flatten ideas and impressions so there is nothing remaining but a deep truth found only in nothingness? And exactly what is the deep truth expressed by Borremans? Even after closely listening to the artist speak about his work, I have no answer to that question. Perhaps not knowing is part of the delicious appeal.
I am attracted to the figurative work of Michaël Borremans for many reasons. His paintings are simple yet become complex upon further thought. They prompt the viewer’s mind to unravel a tangle of ideas, often too dark to consider closely. They are beautifully executed – his drawing skills are superb and his brushwork, paint application and color palette are the strangest mixture of calming and energizing, both luscious and void, both warm and cold. Describing the work of Borremans is a process of using contradictory language, rightly so. In case you are confused, let me provide an example. Many of the figures are in positions indicating they could be dead. However, the artist’s use of rich warm tones in the skin indicates blood flow and vivaciousness. These confounding contradictions let viewers intuit something is not right.
After viewing paintings of various sizes in the first four large display halls, a shift in medium occurs with the display of a film titled, The Storm, 2006. The 35 mm grainy film is projected by a colossal piece of noisy equipment and the image on screen flickers. The ambiguous flicker of light could be indicating a damaged or aged film reel or could indicate an intermittent loss of power in the mysterious scene – a room void of detail, purpose or time. The image of three seated men in the room is almost stagnant but the flickering lights and jumpy screen add a rhythmic quality. Though the men appear to be completely still, viewers perceive very slight movement, perhaps breathing, which makes viewing the one minute loop very different from viewing a still photograph that is flickering on a wall.
After the film, the exhibition is filled with drawings, three-dimensional models, photos, and films on small monitors mounted on the walls amongst drawings. Using pencil, watercolor and gouache on found paper and boards, we find lots of little heads and body parts, experiments with scale, repeated drawings of the same subject with varying views and settings, and the artist’s notes and handwriting. The sketches and notes provide some insight to the development of ideas, certainly more insight than is provided by the reticent paintings (let me clarify, it is their silence, and lack of answers that make the paintings outstanding amongst contemporary figurative art).
Often, viewers can recognize objects or bodies that appear in paintings earlier in the exhibit. For example, The Greatness of Our Loss is a sketch of two male bodies, which reappear in the painting titled, Two Bodies, 2005. Or a film, such as Add and Remove, 2007 shows a scene that reappears in nearby drawings. Worth noting is that three drawings, The Walk, Sunset, and Add and Remove were each created in 2002 and the film displaying the same shelves with miniature trees being added and removed was produced in 2007. It is as if the artist is digging away at the meaning of a thing, and at possible perception based on material and presentation. He explores body positions and objects with relentless agitation and circles back to previous ideas, forcing himself and viewers to look, and think, and look again, and think more – possibly over a long period of time – about a repeated image.
Having studied and copied (my attempt is on the left) the painting The Goldfinch, 1654, by Carel Fabritius, I was delighted by the simple painting of two bird specimens (titled 10 and 11, 2006) and curious about the artist’s slippery attempt to explain why he now paints from nature, something he previously declined. For the next entry, I will talk about Borreman’s brief explanation of how he chooses subject matter and several other insightful topics he discussed during the artist “conversation” with curator, Dr. Jeffrey Grove.
Until then, thank you for visiting!