ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Michaël Borremans - 2013 - Apotheker en ballonvaarder [NL, interview],
Pharmacist and Balloonist
A conversation with Michaël Borremans
The artist quickly leads me through the various rooms in his studio. In an area on the ground floor, I see parts of a scale model, which call to mind props that he has already used for a film and several paintings. I ask why these parts are being reconstructed. It’s because of a project that he has been working on for a while and which I may not write anything about. I understand why; it’s a fantastic idea that relates to the world of his drawings, but which could be feasible in reality. In the final studio, we come across two small paintings that have been painted over with a new reddish-brown ground-layer. It is the first time I see paintings that have been rejected. “There is a different painting under one out of every two of my paintings,” laughs Borremans. “Two for the price of one. However, there is no point scraping away the top layer because what’s underneath is not really very good.” Then we leave for a restaurant. We walk quickly since it is raining. Borremans is going to drive. As soon as he gets behind the wheel of his second-hand Mercedes, he reveals that he has never bought a new car. Then he laughs at the fact that he feels like my taxi driver and tells me that the large front windscreen wiper stopped working properly until he looked on YouTube to find out how to repair it. “The Americans are great at demonstrations,” he says. “Complete with white gloves, they take a gearbox apart and put it back together. In this case, it was a problem related to the hydraulic system. Actually, it was a small pin that slides in and out and needed some oil. Since then, the windscreen wiper works perfectly again.” He goes on to tell me that he also uses YouTube to practice some guitar pieces or to learn how to build certain sections of a scale model, such as crackled asphalt. I imagine him looking at miniature people on a computer screen that are performing the strangest acts with the greatest possible precision, and I understand his enthusiasm. When I point out the connection to his drawings, he smiles.
- There was a painting depicting magnolia branches with wilted blossoms in the exhibition at Zeno X in 2013. Does creating such a painting make you think about your (deceased) mother?
Borremans: No. I have an old magnolia tree. Sometimes I break off some branches and place them in a vase. It was the oldest work in the exhibition, dating from 2012. It was a difficult year. I had lots of ideas, often tried to paint, but I couldn’t focus on the painting itself. I was sad and miserable and the branch with its wilting blossoms suddenly appeared to be in tune with me. Since then, I paint in a different place. My former studio was possessed by evil spirits. They’ve been driven off in the meantime, but since then I alternate between painting in my large studio and in a school chapel. I am able to fully concentrate there. It has a figure of Mary that looks down on me, full of compassion. It has an effect on me. It’s related to my Catholic upbringing.
- Looking at the drawing The Spirit of Modelmaking (2001), I had the impression that you had once built a model with an adult.
Borremans: That’s not true. I have always been fascinated by miniature airplanes and ships and of course I have built some, but no more than other boys. I have always been captivated by scale models. In the Louvre, for example, there are scale models of how Paris used to look. They are displayed behind glass; you can’t touch them. A beautiful scale model exudes a mystical quality. I use scale models as a tool, as a prop for my drawings. I never draw or paint nature, only culture. Except the magnolia branches and the dead chicken of course, but that was not a conscious decision. It occurred during a kind of unguarded moment, let’s say. I usually work from photographs.
- What camera do you use?
Borremans: I use several cameras, usually cheap ones. The one I’ve used the most took photographs with a million pixels, but it recently broke. I set my camera to the lowest resolution; the photographs must not be too focussed because the pores, the hairs, etc. distract me. It’s the tonalities I want to see, not the details. As a rule, I don’t use standard systems and I continue to experiment with the ways in which I can create an image. I have recently been using a Canon D5 now and again to film the models. The photographs I use in this case are film stills. I view them on a monitor so that I don’t have to hold the photographs. I sometimes adjust the monitor so it is out of focus. In fact, I am already painting while I’m taking the photographs. My photographs look like paintings, but they’re only finished as paintings. In the past, I used existing photographs that I found, as you know, but the originals always filtered through in the painting. I was tired of it. So now I take my own photographs.
- In the painting The Angel (2013), we see a woman whose face is painted black (see page 25). Did you really paint the model’s face black or did you only do so in the painting?
Borremans: I painted the model with a type of paint called ‘tête de nègre’.
- You always paint in daylight, even though you work with photographs.
Borremans: Artificial light is dead, it’s flat, it doesn’t change. Daylight constantly changes. It is alive, it’s organic. That’s what you need in order to see what you are applying to the canvas. Painting in the winter is different from painting in the summer. That’s why I have both a winter and a summer studio. Velázquez was once travelling with Philip IV when he painted a picture of the latter’s secretary. He was not happy with the light and had a hole made in the wall to obtain the correct incidence of light. That’s what it’s about. I studied that painting extensively in books. When I first set eyes on it, in the flesh, I was moved to tears. It was as though I had met a correspondent to whom I had been writing to for many years, but whom I had never met in person. One of the great things about that painting is that you think that you could reproduce it. You can see extremely well how it was created. The artist is close to your heart. A dialogue is created with someone that is long dead, simply because you are involved in the same activities, because you are trying to solve the same problems. It is emotional. This is one aspect of painting I had not expected. The better the paintings are preserved, the more acute the effect, the greater the kick.
- Is there anything you would like to say about Nude with Cheese (2013)?
Borremans: I find it very powerful, compositionally, but in the future I would perhaps like to make the nude more paste-like, perhaps paint her more artificially, use more purple. I find the nude extraordinarily fascinating, the nuances are so delicate, everything must be perfect. It’s a real challenge. Extremely frustrating. The intention was to paint a classic nude, but to let the model hold something that was insignificant. I once created a work that depicted several heads that were all saying ‘cheese’ at the same time. I love to play with the observer’s pattern of expectations. You could call it a form of punk: unexpected humour and confusion. This is the level at which the conceptual is found in my work. I painted a sleeping girl who could just as well have been dead. Due to her cap, she calls to mind a genre painting: she could be Vermeer’s milkmaid. But the way in which she is portrayed (the angle, framing and lighting), makes you think of harsh, documentary, perhaps forensic photography. These two elements seem irreconcilable and create a confrontational contrast. On the one hand, you have the sweet, and on the other the harsh. I think that searching for these kinds of contrasts is a conscious, conceptual contribution to the painting. This does not exclude the fact that it often comes about unknowingly. Then I paint something very familiar and trusted and it suddenly acquires something figurative. Then accidents happen that you must learn to embrace. I believe in inspiration. I am extremely chaotic and need enthusiasm, to believe in what I do, to drive myself on. Talent often involves conceding to chance, accepting an unexpected event that can make a work transcend its creator. The artist Kris Martin recently said that I can paint so well that I am able to omit all that is conceptual. I don’t think so. I missed a little humour in the exhibition at Zeno X in 2013. All art must contain humour. Fortunately, I can now create several pieces for a smaller exhibition in the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Those images will be a little more rock ‘n’ roll.
- The nude is not holding a cheese, but a piece of cheese. It could also be a spinning top.
Borremans: That’s right. I painted the cheese five times. It was no good as long as it was too explicit. It had to be somewhat transparent; otherwise it would become an element that undermined the entire work. But it was necessary. Without the cheese, the painting would have been too bland. I painted the pubic hair twice. Not because it was necessary, it looked great the first time; but because I enjoyed it so much. It was the first time I had painted pubic hair.
- Reference is often made to the painters you admire, but I don’t know if there has been any discussion about your favourite paintings.
Borremans: For Manet, that would be the still lifes, like the flower arrangements. They are so simple, but I never tire of looking at them. The man took risks, he worked with impasto, in the 19th-century style, but as well as being a classic painter, he was also a great innovator in conceptual terms. Later on, he painted in a more impressionist style, which I find less interesting. There is no piece by Velázquez that leaves me unmoved. My favourite painting by Goya is Cannibales contemplant des restes humains (Cannibals Contemplating Human Remains). It’s an oil sketch and demonstrates all his genius. His etchings are also amazing. When you see how he creates depth with three or four tonalities; it’s phenomenal! I also love his portraits, like the one with the women in black lace dresses. Velázquez was perfect, highly efficient. If you look at the painting of El Primo, then you see that he painted the person with a great deal of respect. You can compare that with John Singer Sargent: fascinating to look at, but too much bravado, too much fashion photography. Then compare that with Manet’s Guitar Player: so absurd, but so full of life! Or the face of the Boy Carrying a Sword: the expression, which is so well composed, I am quite jealous of it. And the blue stockings against the bluish-green background! On the other hand, you’ve got Zola’s baggy trousers, which are awful.
- I don’t think he attached any importance to certain details; that he deliberately left them unfinished or flat. And that he had found the power to retain the weaker elements because other parts of the painting pleased him.
Borremans: [Surprised.] I don’t think he really thought about it that much. I’ve seen Olympia recently. How he painted her skin! So simply: a little blue, a little umber, a little ochre, a little Naples yellow.
- When I look at your work, I think about Magritte’s attempts to evoke the mystery, preferably by combining images of everyday objects.
Borremans: I never use the word mystery. There is nothing special about plucking an object ‘out of its usual frame of reference’ and making it reappear elsewhere. Wim Delvoye does that too, by marrying elements from higher and lower culture… No, if you come across that word then it’s because the authors used it… Magritte had a very flat way of painting. An uninspired gouache style, but his work becomes conceptually cleaner as a result. However, I never simply depict different everyday objects together, as Magritte did. In my case, it’s more indirect, it has more to do with making analogies and references. If I touch on something, it is never directly; it involves hints, then I am a player, that’s my game…. If someone asks me what I do for a living, I always make something up. I once replied that I was a pharmacist, but that ended badly because the discussion immediately turned to drugs I knew nothing about. Once I also tried out balloonist and that was very successful. But that’s just lying for fun; it’s innocent and isn’t threatening. I once informed a gallery owner who didn’t know me that I was continuing Mondrian’s work and that I painted in a highly geometric and abstract style. The man found that very interesting.
- When I saw your drawings for the very first time, they made me think about the small paintings of field-tracks by Thierry De Cordier, particularly the way you both use white.
Borremans: That De Cordier exhibition at the S.M.A.K. was extremely inspiring. It made you immediately want to get to work. That doesn’t happen very often. And the raised white, that’s right. There is a similarity. But when I was a student, I studied Fragonard and Watteau, artists that drew on tinted paper that they heightened with white. I believe the French Rococo drawings are the best that have ever been created.
- What do you think of De Cordier’s North Sea paintings?
Borremans: The waves are fantastic. The paintings are so smooth! Like plaster! I think they must be extremely labour intensive. But he shouldn’t be allowed to write on them. Paper is for writing on. The paintings are charged enough already.
- When Coggins asked you if you still draw, you replied that you didn’t have any more paper and your eyesight was too poor. That was a rather laconic reply.
Borremans: It’s true that I draw less intensely than I used to and that my eyesight isn’t as good as it was. I have to work with a magnifying glass, which I find humiliating. I could wear glasses, but I don’t want any architecture on my head. I don’t wear a wristwatch either. But of course I haven’t given up drawing. I work simultaneously on twenty or thirty drawings. It takes years. But it allows me to draw without any pressure. When a series is finished, it can become a small touring exhibition, but I do not think about exhibiting before the series is finished. As a result, it does appear to the outside world as if I have given up drawing. You have just seen pictures of my new project. I enjoy creating pieces that nobody is waiting for. It boils down to not falling into a particular rhythm like rock groups: making a CD, touring, back to the studio. Like the sculpture I created for ‘Track’. Two bronze heads with a duck’s bill and several objects lying around. I let the dust settle on it and then placed it in a glass case. I find sculptures that you cannot touch quite interesting. They acquire something illusory, as do drawings. Small Museum for Brave Art is a stunning sculptural example. It conjures up a hallucination and I like that…. I am also going to have a Skirt sculpture made. It is going to be an elongated, fabric skirt that will rotate all by itself. The whole thing will be placed in a glass case…. [He flicks through the Eating the Beard catalogue.] This is one of my favourite paintings: Swingers. It depicts cowboys throwing Muslim women over their shoulders. The work simultaneously exudes a lightness and a darkness that I really like. It also possesses a sculptural quality. Perhaps it should be included in my exhibition in Dallas? I am also really happy with the piece 10 and 11. It refers to The Goldfinch by Fabritius, of course; but it also has something to do with reproduction. Using dead animals as models is weird, particularly if they are stuffed as in a natural history museum. Those animals are not real, but they are made from real animals….
- In the past, Robert Devriendt created small paintings of a stuffed goose.
Borremans: Yes, the first series of paintings in the S.M.A.K. I thought they were very impressive.
Montagne de Miel, 26 September 2013