Michaël Borremans: The people from the future are not to be trusted
Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp
4 September to 12 October 2013
Review by Annelies Thoelen
Zeno X gallery is one of the most influential galleries showing contemporary art in Belgium, enjoying wide international acclaim. The gallery was founded in 1981 by Frank and Eliane Demaegd. Over the course of more than 30 years, Zeno X shifted its focus from showing sculptures to re-evaluating (mostly figurative) painting. Today they represent the work of internationally renowned painters such as Luc Tuymans, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Marlene Dumas, Raoul De Keyser and Michaël Borremans. However, Zeno X also promotes artists working with different media such as Dirk Braeckman (photography), Bart Stolle (animation film) and Mark Manders (sculpture).
Where the financial climate made other notable galleries in Antwerp move (mostly to Brussels) or even close, Zeno X is one of the last international galleries for contemporary art left in the city. It seems as though no economic or political force can influence its activities. Zeno X engages in five major international art fairs (Basel, New York, Miami, London and Paris), and works with Tate Modern (London, UK), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, NL), MoMA (New York, US), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, FR), LA County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, US), Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, US) and the National Museum of Art (Osaka, JP), among others.
On top of that, the gallery recently changed location from its spot in the fancy southern part of Antwerp to a new space in Borgerhout, an upcoming and more diverse area of town. Here, the ‘Zeno X Storage’, in use since 2002, has been extended into a neighbouring building, once a milk factory. While the focus of the gallery will remain the same, this renovation opens up the potential for large-scale exhibitions. The original location in the city centre will not be sold, leaving options open for Zeno X to work with artists on both sites.
Zeno X currently hosts ‘The people from the future are not to be trusted’ showing works of Michaël Borremans (°1963). This Belgian painter and film maker was born Geraardsbergen, and now lives and works in Ghent. This is his fifth solo exhibition with the gallery, which is a preparation for a larger overview of his work in Bozar (Brussels) next spring. Borremans studied photography at St Lucas in Ghent, but gradually changed his focus towards drawing, painting and filmmaking. Yet, by using (both found and self-made) photographs in preliminary studies and as sources of inspiration, he inevitably stays in touch with his first medium.
Borremans’ work is often understood to be timeless and seductive, and to be executed with stylistic perfection. This perception is fuelled by his unmistakable engagement and dialogue with art history, with Velasquez, Manet, Goya, Degas and Courbet. His silent scenes show unusual close-ups, uncanny still lives and portraits of melancholic or apathetic characters, all in a location undefined by time or space. Borremans’ work is a tangible combination of both realism and the unreal that can be read as an ode to Ensor’s masks and to Delvaux’s surrealism.
The exhibition at Zeno X has a rather small scale and consists of four large, two medium-sized and four smaller canvases. Upon entering the space, Angel strikes the eye immediately. This larger-than-life portrait shows a static figure in a pink dress and his face painted black. It is an androgynous figure, with muscled arms and an unpronounced chest, an enigmatic image concealing a curious narrative. Angel is a subject that, through her vacant and dejected glance, almost becomes an object, disrupting every connection with the original personage. Borremans often takes up this connection between fiction and reality, and likes to disturb it. ‘The Prop’ for instance is a painting of a photographed plant made out of cardboard: a reproduction of a non-existent reality.
The art historical tradition is never that far away. We see some naked Venuses, a virgin, and a vanitas scene in ‘Magnolias - (I)’ and ‘Dead Chicken’. An impressive rendez-vous with history, even though Borremans’ works can never be reduced to meaningless imitations of art history, or reality, for that matter.
‘The people from the future are not to be trusted’ is a coherent collection of skilfully painted illusions. Viewers are taken by the hand with the use of recognisable themes, a realistic style and delicate, thin layers of paint. Yet by adding surrealist, senseless and alienating details, we are constantly made aware of the artifice of what is depicted. Borremans’ world appears appealing and uncanny at the same time. Precisely this contrast between the accessibility of his forms and style and the contrariness of the subjects evokes emotion, and monumental timeless breeze flowing through all the works. It is emulation brought to perfection.