Calmly disguised and eerily blurred, the paintings of the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans thrill viewers with their abstract narratives. Borremans’ is an unconventional way of abstraction that emerges from the narrative instead of the technique. Familiar agents, in some cases adult men or women and sometimes children and animals, are positioned in alien tales of ambiguity.
In As sweet as it gets, his retrospective at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the challenge Borremans imposes on viewers derives from this intangible vagueness. Moreover the impossibility of his narratives in terms of interpretation, as opposed to his models’ barely familiar and highly curious actions, bear an absurdity. As his figures are distanced from a coherent and familiar story, they transform into the agents of absurdity.
A young man holds a sharp edged plate between his lips in The Whistler while red stains on his torso and the plate perpetuate blood. The contrast between the title and the depicted action celebrates this ridiculousness, while the failure of a productive reading of the depicted story problematizes one of our basic human instincts: the urge to reason.
Drawing inspiration from a wide spectrum of precedents including Old Masters such as Goya and Velázquez or Surrealists such as Magritte and Dali, Borremans dismantles the borders of figurative painting, especially the human form, not only through the technique he pursues but, more importantly, through subverting the storytelling aspect. Narrative, an undeniable component of representational art, gloriously recesses in Borremans’ paintings, surrendering to the terrain of endless translations.
A young girl unclear whether she is alive puts on a plastic mask with the aid of a pair of unidentified hands in The Preservation, gradually departing from the limits of a linguistic dialogue to enter into the realm of subliminal endlessness. One of the most vivid examples of Borremans’ practice is The Wooden Skirt, a painting depicting a young girl wearing a supposedly wooden skirt. The fact the skirt and the girl’s skin are the same color blur the definitions of the living and the inanimate while the physical challenge and the illogicalness of wearing a skirt made of wood complicates the possibility of a coherent interpretation of the story beneath its visible surface.
On the other hand, The Devil’s Dress, one of the most recognized works of the artist, problematizes the definitions of sanity and madness, suggesting a similar analysis on mental normality with Michel Foucault’s. Foucault, in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, analyzes the definitions of sane and insane under the influence of modern era, suggesting that the position of the so-called insane slowly shifted to the outside of the society through the ages.
The ‘abnormal’ act of the model, lying on the floor suggestively naked inside a red sharp edged tube, articulates these set notions of normality as well as the performance of mental stability in society. A similar problematization of sanity is evident in works such as Man Wearing a Bonnet, depicting a man curiously sporting a bonnet with rabbit ears while holding a blank expression on his face, or The Angel, a large scale painting presenting a woman standing still looking down on the floor with a black mask on her face. Far from mobility yet reluctant to settle down for tranquility, Borremans’ figures merge intuitive subtlety with turbulent carnality.