If Michaël Borremans isn't always the technician 'in complete control of his medium' that he was vaunted to be in the press release for his first New York solo show, 'Trickland', so much the better. After all, one of the most intriguing aspects of his enigmatic paintings and works on paper is their odd mix of facility and awkwardness. Borremans' off-kilter formal approach only heightens the sense of unease that pervades his shadow-cloaked scenes involving such cryptic ingredients as sparring puppets, ominous model train sets, moody mountain ranges and blank or puzzled-looking humans. In The Lucky Ones (all works 2002), for example, white-jacketed women examine (or clean?) a greenish table-top with crudely rendered, club-like hands; in Trickland (II - Large) lumpy miniature trees spilling across a grassy model landscape - viewed intently by a group of men in the distance - uncannily resemble soft green rocks more than trees. The show also included a handful of portraits, which employ a brushy chiaroscuro that mostly telegraphs a frustrating inscrutability, as in a half-remembered nightmare.
Yet Borremans' painterly brushwork can occasionally be assured and suggestive. The paintings and drawings also have an intriguing palette: skin tones in the portrait subjects and figures are sometimes as earthy as the browns, yellows and greens that dominate the backgrounds or scenes, and some of them evoke sepia photographs. This, combined with the deadpan illustration-like look of some images (which calls to mind paintings by Neo Rauch or Mark Tansey), conveys a mute, mournful quality: for example, in Trickland (I - Large), in which figures kneeling on a miniature landscape in near-darkness seem humbled in some unidentifiable way by their servitude.
Most peculiar, and most unsettling, are six small, grisaille-like vignettes on paper or cardboard. Four of them depict a man seated in front of either an actual mountain or a model of one, and have titles that include the word 'journey'; two of these refer to mountains in Italy (Courmayeur) and Carpathia (Lower Tatra). In one of these images the man is seen in profile, in front of a model of a mountain shrouded in darkness, posed so that his hands almost suggest he is praying. In two others a man (the same one?) is seen from behind, also seated before a model of a mountain. In the fourth he is drawing and faces a window that frames a mountain; this last image is flanked by a thumbnail sketch of the man inside what appears to be some kind of viewing chamber, like a camera obscura.
The recurring mountain motif evokes both the Kantian dynamic Sublime and, to an even greater extent, the Postmodern version, with its critiques of the aesthetic and connections to formlessness. But what are these men, who resemble generic, clean-cut figures in old illustrations, thinking and feeling? And why has Borremans chosen tourist destinations to serve as emblems of the Sublime? One feels that the drawings are meant to suggest a confrontation with the unpresentable for the viewer as much as they apparently do for the man or men depicted.
The 'Journey' drawings tend not to fill the support, which results in a provisional, sketchbook-like feeling. This, combined with Borremans' technique - pencil and delicate watercolour washes with white highlights (some of the drawings also incorporate varnish or coffee, creating a rich tonal effect) - recalls the travel sketches of 19th-century painters. But Borremans' intimate renderings evoke an interior journey of some kind; and, rather than the camels and picturesquely garbed locals that populate travel drawings by artists such as Eugène Delacroix, most of them show solitary figures that may or may not stand in for the artist. In The Common World a row of fez-wearing men operating the controls of a giant, shadowy train set offer a muted echo of exoticizing conventions in historical travel sketches, though the mysterious activity in which they are engaged suggests that they are engineers running a metaphorical cosmos.
Dislocation and out-of-whack scale are recurring themes in this haunting group of works, which together summon a sense of being unmoored in a shadowy sea of uncertain references. Some of the paintings on view feel unfinished, but most feel eerily complete. In The Conman (Part II), for example, a man stands by a grey wall, casting against it a dramatic, nervously rendered shadow. Little information is given, but the painting is infused with uneasy mystery. Too spare and open-ended to suggest even the kind of skewed allegories hinted at in Rauch's or Tansey's work, Borremans' paintings and drawings nevertheless draw one into their ambiguous world.