BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 07 FEB 13
Featured in
Issue 8

Michaël Borremans

Bawag Contemporary

BY Jörg Heiser in Reviews | 07 FEB 13

The Ear, 2011, oil on canvas

In her informative catalogue essay, the show’s curator Christine Kintisch quotes a remark by French art historian Jean Clay about Édouard Manet: ‘Like an expanding mass that collides with the obstacle of a windowpane, his figures end up crushed against the superficies of the painting, against the film separating us from them.’ In fact, this description seems to fit Michaël Borremans better than Manet. If there has ever been captivating under-glass painting on canvas, then his is it. Rather than applying scratches and blurring over his faces and bodies like Gerhard Richter – the second inevitable point of comparison for spectrally present figures in post-Old Master painting – Borremans applies a crystal-clear shine (achieved using transparent oil glaze). Even where there is blurring, the subjects look asif they have been mounted on a microscope slide and viewed with heightened attention to detail through a macro lens.

As in Richter’s case, although there are certainly differences between the two artists’ approaches, this impression is due to a reflection of the way photographs are made. One need only hold up Richter’s famous Betty (1988) next to Borremans’ The Ear (2011) in the mind’s eye. Both pictures show a woman’s upper body and head from behind. But while the graciously blurred red floral pattern and silky shining hair in Richter’s painting suggest a parent’s tender view of his daughter, Borremans’ suggests major existential uncertainty, as if the picture is saying: I love this person, but who the hell is she? Betty is emotionally akin to a family photograph, whereas The Ear is closer to professional picture making that still, however, relies just as much on intimacy – from fashion photography to film through to classical life painting in the studio. The title seems to confirm this observation: the ear is placed at the centre of the picture, framed by hair done up in a bun, a buttoned-up white blouse (half strict boarding school, half Belgian avant-garde fashion) and the harsh shadow on the olive-green wall that could have been cast by a flashbulb. Its fleshy presence is skilfully rendered with three-dimensional brilliance (like the Flemish masters with their lobsters, Borremans is unbeatable in his treatment of highlights). This focusing of attention on the ear implies the monstrosity of any attempt to ‘grasp’the physical object (one is reminded of the severed ear at the start of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from 1986).

The resulting uneasiness was heightened in a number of other paintings in the strikingly sparse hang (an aura-generating gesture that was easily carried off by these small-format canvases). It was hard to believe that they show people asleep rather than corpses, zombies or life-like dolls. The viewer was lured into a position of ghoulishly cold,curious observation. In The Case (2009), we are even offered a glimpse up a short skirt – but there is nothing there, the young woman has no abdomen, her averted face blurs away beyond a white horizontal line that appears to mark the upper edge of a glass plate located just above her body. The title suggests both a murder case and a coffin.

In the case of Sleeper (2007–8) we look down from an angle, like parents visitinga morgue, at the pretty, unharmed head of a blond child whose body seems to be laidout under a shroud. The beige of the shroud merges with the beige of the background, as if the body were being gradually swallowedup by a surrounding desert – a forensic horror version of Goya’s The Dog (1820–3). 10 and 11 (2006), seen in isolation, may appear tame – but for anyone who still hadn’t noticed the element of horror in this show, the image of two dead songbirds, each with a number asin a museum vitrine, made it readily apparent. Red Hand, Green Hand (2010), however, became an allegory on both perpetration and the conjuring of artistic images. The picture shows two hands covered in paint just above a table top: in the context of the other motifs, the red hand immediately evoked a disturbed killer whose hands have been dipped in avictim’s blood, while the green of the other hand evoked the shamanic invocation ritual of some obscure sect. Taken together, they marked the spectrum of the delightful roles offered to the viewer by Borremans’ paintings, stifling the illusion that painting can be looked at innocently.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.