In the 1990s, when the art world dismissed realistic, figurative painting as dead, the Belgian artist Michael Borremans revived Old Master techniques to acclaim — although his paintings happen to look like Old Masters haunted by ghosts and oddities. KERA’s Jerome Weeks joined the artist and the show’s curator, Jeffrey Grove, as they installed the Dallas Museum of Art’s sizable premiere, Michael Borremans: as sweet as it gets
In the gallery, Michael Borremans and Jeffrey Grove are pointing at individual drawings propped along one wall on the floor. They’re asking art handlers to rearrange the sequence, move some this way a few inches, swap these two out. Borremans created all these works, and Grove — the former DMA curator now an independent working out of New York — created this show from its beginnings last year in Ghent, Borremans’ Belgian hometown. Ironically, though, neither man can actually touch the art.
It’s professional museum protocol. The works are now owned by private collectors and museums, so only the white-gloved art handlers are permitted to move them. It’s because the handlers are insured, Borremans explains. “If one of them accidentally drills a hole in a painting, they’re insured.” So Borremans and Grove stand and point, ponder and ask.
Artist, curator and handlers are all in the last days of putting the show together — now that they’re down to fine-tuning the drawings like this. With nearly ninety works, as sweet as it gets is the U. S. debut of the first significant retrospective of the renowned Belgian artist. And the DMA is the only place it’ll appear in America.
They’re in the last days because the heavy lifting — as it were — has been done. The paintings are up. Oil paintings are what made the Belgian artist’s reputation in the ’90s. Back when the art world was dismissing realistic, figurative paintings — we’re the digital age, the multi-platform age — Borreman re-invested painting and classic oil techniques with a theatrical air of mystery and oddness. “He became a painter,” Grove says, “because he truly believes painting is still the highest art.”
Take this one work: The painting towers nearly ten feet tall. It’s right spang at the center of as sweet as it gets. The first half of the show features fifty paintings, the second half is drawings and videos, and right in the middle she stands. Her title? The Angel. The painting simply shows a blond woman in a long, pale, old-fashioned dress.
And her face is entirely covered in black makeup.
“This painting did immediately become an icon,” says Grove. “It’s the signature image of the show, it’s on the cover of the catalog — but also because it really charted new territory for him as an artist.”
The Angel’s face is not a minstrel’s black-corked mask. Her neck and arms are bare, there are no big, circled eyes and lips. Certainly race is being evoked in some fashion, but there’s just a solid black coating on her face like an oil slick. Some viewers even fear her face has been charred somehow.
“I remember seeing this in the chapel,” Grove says, “and I knew it was something that hadn’t been done before.”
The chapel Grove refers to was Borremans’ new studio. In 2012, Borremans hit a mid-life crisis. He was already renowned for his richly painted but disturbing figures. He depicts silent, isolated people who might be dead (“an easy trick,” he says now with a shrug, “I don’t do it any more”). His people look away from us, perhaps out of shame or fear. They exist in a Twilight Zone, part-theater stage, part-movie set, part-empty warehouse. But although Borremans still had ideas for such paintings in his studio — a converted carpenter’s workshop — he couldn’t paint anything.
Then a friend offered him an old, empty chapel at a school.
“And all of a sudden I had focus again,” he says with a wry smile. “I was back on track, and I worked like crazy. I was so much in a trance in that chapel, I only went out to get food. I mean, I peed in jars, I slept on a cardboard on the ground — because I didn’t want to break the magic.”
The high ceiling in the chapel let Borremans go tall, go big. He used bigger brushes, bigger brushstrokes. “I was raised Catholic,” he says, “but I no longer practice. I have serious doubts about religion. People are going to laugh at this, but I felt inspired by the chapel.” The works that came out of it were given resonant titles: The Angel, The Virgin, The Son.
But the chapel also challenged Borremans — to keep things simple.
“It’s neo-Baroque,” he explains, “so it’s a lot of decoration and gold and marble. Therefore, it’s a good studio because if you have a plain white studio, I mean, everything looks good in a plain white studio! But if you have a complicated studio and you make something that still stands out, that’s a good test, I think.”
OK. But all of that doesn’t answer what is probably the public’s basic question when they see Borremans’ paintings: Why are they so beautiful — and so odd, so creepy?
“I can’t help it,” he says. “It has to do with my personality. But I do it on purpose also because it is my view on the world, on humanity, on life – that’s it’s all very beautiful but it’s also very” — he chuckles — “creepy. Just look at the world today.”
More specifically, then, why does the The Angel have a black face? Well, Borremans doesn’t like to explain everything. Actually, the painting wasn’t about her face at first; it was inspired by the dress, which he saw in a costume shop and had re-created — the way he stage-manages all of his paintings. He doesn’t even call his paintings ‘portraits,’ for example, because portraits aim to capture a person’s character. Borremans doesn’t care about psychology. With his works, we don’t wonder, what’s this person really like? We want to know, What’s going on? Why is she doing that? Where is this room?
“I found out if you take away certain ingredients, you create confusion,” he says. His paintings are like scenes from a Hitchcock film — something is hidden from us. He simply doesn’t give the viewer enough data.
“Yeah, I don’t give you enough data to fully read the image,” he agrees. “So you create an emptiness, you create something that you cannot fill in. But that means the image remains vibrant.”
And that’s also why Grove points to great masters like Diego Velazquez, Edouard Manet or John Singer Sargent as influences on Borremans’ painting techniques, his glazes and lighting effects. But Grove also points to surrealists like fellow Belgian Rene Magritte — for the way Borremans’ paintings isolate people or objects even as they point to something else, a narrative, something outside the painting, some literary or cinematic reference, another dimension. That other thing that’s missing. This influence of the surrealists is particularly evident in Borremans’ drawings of oddball sometimes amusing buildings and the moody videos included in as sweet as it gets. They’re like ideas quickly sketched, while the paintings are like beautiful embodiments of unease.
“We humans don’t like things that are hard to decipher,” Grove says. “But because of the execution and the beauty in Michael’s work, people are more willing to be seduced by this.”
Artwork that delights as it bewilders. This is as sweet as it gets.