‘With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar. But then you see that some parts of the painting don’t match, or don’t make sense. The works don’t come to a conclusion in the way we expect them to. The images are unfinished: they remain open. That’s what makes them durable’ -M. Borremans
‘It’s really a philosophical question about what truth can be. And truth is just as much in the lie as in something straightforward or honest’ -M. Borremans
Emerging from the twilit gloom, two figures are caught in a whispered moment of secrecy in The Hearsay (1999). Yet the figurines, whose white-glazed porcelain faces are forever frozen in time, clearly have no living existence in reality, and in this work Michaël Borremans presents only half of the truth. On the verge of losing the viewer in speculation over the possible double meanings of the work, the artist, through the sheer handling of bold and lively brushwork, reasserts the tangibility of the painted surface. With no real authority of their own outside the image, these porcelain archetypes serve to emphasize the non-specificity of painting; as David Coggins eloquently explains, ‘It is the insistence on the absurd emptiness as a characteristic of the picture that identifies Borremans as a sceptical Romantic, a mystic on the threshold to nihilism’ (D. Coggins, ‘Interview: Michaël Borremans’, in Art in America, March 2009).
One of the leading figurative artists of today, Borremans is known for making works which rebuff explanation and defy narrow understanding. His works are enigmatic and intense, combining elements of the fantastical and the real, the familiar and the alien, at times hinges on the absurd and the uncanny, although always in a comical way. In the Hearsay, these archetypical elements come together to form a painting which is theatrical yet simultaneously alluding to the real, playful yet obscure. The Hearsay seems to be a snapshot, a frozen moment, depicting a situation that appears to have an immediate before-and-after, a cause and effect, creating and created by the hearsay.
Attempts to demystify the artist's paintings are to no avail, only leaving the beholder in an even greater state of disarray. The most rewarding way to experience a work by Borremans remains to embrace its immediate impact and observe the emotional and psychological effects it engenders in the moment. Indeed, there is a straightforwardness to the painting and an immediacy to the figures depicted, seducing the viewer to give it utter attention. What actually takes place or unfolds in the painting, however, remains obscure and keeps the viewer’s thoughts engaged and captivated. It often seems as though Borremans’ characters are caught right in between moments, emerging from an unclear past and now on the threshold to an uncertain fate. The mystery surrounding the figures, however, is counteracted by their theatricality and arresting presence in the present moment. In balancing the entangled senses of intimacy and distance, the artist's work recalls that of fellow-painter Marlene Dumas, whose figures promise to reveal secrets, yet remain wordless.
The primary subject of Borremans’s painting is painting itself; as a working concept as well as a medium, the artist investigates its meaning, possibilities and historical significance. This conceptual approach to painting stems from the artist’s fascination with truth as constituent of a variety of interpretations, or half-truths. ‘It’s really a philosophical question about what truth can be,’ Borremans explained. ‘And truth is just as much in the lie as in something straightforward or honest’ (M. Borremans, quoted in M. Herbert, ‘Michaël Borremans’, in ArtReview, May 2015). Borremans’s paintings are an investigation of the truth about painting, representing his questioning of the idea of a painting as a self-contained image or as having an existence beyond the picture frame. It is this self-referential complexity that is initially overlooked, but within which lies the richness of his paintings. Although Borremans thus positions himself in the long history of painting, his work is decidedly contemporary, for it engages with the enduring legacy of both postmodern relativism and the tradition of conceptual art.