On view this month at David Zwirner in New York, the painter Michaël Borremans presents The Acrobat, an exhibition that continues the artist’s meticulous study of the history of painting and the structure and language of painterly composition.Taking place at the gallery’s 525 West 19th Street location in New York, this will be the artist’s seventh solo exhibition with the gallery and his first in New York since 2011.
Borremans has gained international recognition over the course of his career for his innovative approach to painting. Combining technical mastery with subject matter that defies straightforward interpretation, his charged canvases address universal themes with a specifically contemporary complexity. Balanced between subtle interpretations of historical modes of painting and an equally subtle subversion of its rules, Borremans turns his work into a reflection of both his own work and that of history.
Created over the last two years during the global pandemic, the eight portraits and seven scenographic compositions in The Acrobat are imbued with pending questions and underlying tensions that operate on multiple registers. Borremans seemingly revisits subject matter from his own body of work, introducing new and varied meanings in every iteration of his mysterious compositions. The painting from which the exhibition takes its title, The Acrobat (2021), depicts the bust of an androgynous figure in three-quarters profile, wearing a rose-pink balaclava, a recent recurring motif for the artist, which appears again here in the painting The Double (2022). Borremans also paints his subjects in reflective hooded puffers, seemingly situating them in our present day, though little is revealed about the setting in which they are shown. Rusty pigment is smeared over faces and arms in The Racer and The Cutter (both 2022). In his portraiture, these familiar visual cues serve simultaneously to invite viewers in and to keep them at bay. Titles such as The Pilot (2021), The Apprentice (2022), and The Witch (2022) further connect the portrayed to certain historical archetypes, yet resist narrativization. The lack of specific context in the work provides an open yet intensely charged atmosphere.
In addition to portraits that honor and subvert the associations of the genre, several new paintings on panel are realized on an intimate scale that draws the viewer into them. This play with scale is further explored through the paintings’ imagery: enigmatic scenes of groups of figures looking at what appear to be large glass vitrines. Depicted from an elevated vantage point, the characters and settings seem staged, as though they are miniature models rather than real figures. In Borremans’s characteristic painterly style, these works feature striated brushstrokes that delineate anachronistic backdrops in a palette of earthy browns, greens, and oranges. Devoid of specific historical or geographical markers, Five Writers (Design for a Sculpture), The Fog (Design for a Sculpture), and With Animals (all 2021) seem to depict formally dressed characters surveying rectangular, sealed display cases that ostensibly hold other figures in unlikely configurations.
The show closes June 4th.
– D. Creahan
The Acrobat [Exhibition Site]