Michaël Borremans and the Porcelain Monkey

At the artist’s exhibition at David Zwirner in London, conventional concerns of portraiture become richly complex when combined with such enigmatic subjects

BY Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith in Exhibition Reviews | 24 JUN 24

Michäel Borremans came to prominence at the turn of the millennium with a more clearly bifurcated practice than is now evident. One stream was of medium-sized, figurative paintings in oil of quietly disconcerting, unaccountable scenes owing something to surrealist cinema. The other comprised smaller drawings in pencil and watercolour of more panoramic, though equally enigmatic, scenarios, marked by striking disparities in scale between monumental and minuscule figures. While his solo show at David Zwirner, ‘The Monkey’, contains only paintings on canvas, the memory of these early works on paper persists in the form of small painted tableaux featuring miniature landscapes surveyed from on high, as one might pore over an elaborate train set or board game. 

Michaël Borremans
Michaël Borremans, The Monkey, 2023, oil on canvas, 83 × 71 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

While several such pictures punctuate this show, for instance The Gardener (all works 2023), most of the larger, unframed paintings may be described as portraits, though with significant caveats. Some of these are of flesh-and-blood sitters, including The Spaceman, while others, like The Monkey IV, are of a porcelain figurine of a costumed monkey viewed from different angles. Even in the case of the former, portraiture’s conventional concerns with psychological disclosure and sociocultural contextualization become redundant when faced with such constitutionally unknowable subjects. Eyes averted, inexplicably garbed and painted against monochrome grounds from which they might almost have physically emerged, the typical Borremans subject is forever marooned on the far side of meaningful communion with the viewer. 

Michaël Borremans
Michaël Borremans, ‘The Monkey’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

This essentially three-stage process involves the initial choice of an underlying concept, the subsequent staging of a photoshoot with live models (the artist was trained as a photographer), and the ultimate production of a suite of paintings derived from that shoot’s far-from-predetermined results. His models are found through personal rather than professional channels: friends of friends, children of acquaintances. Youthful, unlined, rosy-cheeked: his ideal sitters have features as eminently paintable as a gleaming bowl of luscious fruit. The light in which the paintings are executed is almost never artificial. While the subtle, ever-changing northern European light of his studio in Ghent is ideal, Borremans has also been productive elsewhere. That said, a recent spell in the unsparing glare of Los Angeles proved challenging.

Michaël Borremans
Michaël Borremans, The Talent, 2023, oil on canvas, 66 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

Light bounces inevitably off polished porcelain in the four impassive ‘portraits’ of the kitsch figurine of the monkey. Yet, it does so equally off the shiny headgear of an androgynous youth who appears to be dressed as a jockey in a painting also titled The Monkey, which is surely intended to confuse. The outlandish costumes worn by all of the humans portrayed are either hired from outfitters (e.g. a young cowboy in The Talent) or fashioned by the sitters themselves, with varying degrees of finesse, in response to the artist’s rudimentary instructions (a speedskater? some kind of Arctic explorer?). Notably, given that hairstyle choice can be a potent expression of personality, heads are for the most part covered by a hat or a hood. Borremans’s art has always been long on intimation, short on intimacy. These individuals were not convened, after all, to reveal anything of themselves. Their sole purpose from the outset was to be painted.

Michaël Borremans’s ‘The Monkey’ is at David Zwirner, London, until July 26 

Main image: Michaël Borremans, The Smell (detail), 2023, oil on wood panel, 18 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner 

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and occasional curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.