London’s David Zwirner gallery presents new works by the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans. Titled 'Black Mould', the collection of paintings depicts a series of sinister hooded figures, whose silhouettes appear familiar yet enigmatic. Painted with the technical flair and colour sensibility of a Flemish master, Borremans’ subjects are outfitted in costumes inspired by puppet players of the Japanese Bunraku theatre tradition, while also recalling tribal dress, the Catholic church and the Ku Klux Klan.

We chatted with Borremans on the eve of the exhibition’s opening, during a reception in his honour held at the Belgian Ambassador’s residence in London.

‘It’s different than what I have been doing before – this is more disturbing and dangerous,’ admits the painter, whose body of work includes solemn portraits and still-lives usually delivered in less dramatic tones. ‘This work is really reflecting of the world today,’ he explains, noting how his black figurines perform a ‘danse macabre’ which represents the dark side of humanity. The starting point was provided by a Bunraku costume that had been hanging in his studio for years, serving as a silent inspiration. ‘In Japanese puppet theatre, you usually don’t see these costumes, as they are against a black background,’ the artist says. ‘I wanted to bring them upfront to become the main characters.’ 

The first part of the exhibition features 16 tableaux, each depicting a dancing figure: a series, Borremans tells us, painted while listening to the American rock band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. One song in particular, Black Mould, also inspired the exhibition title.

A second series depicts the same characters in larger contexts, performing more outré acts such as juggling fiery limbs and having anal sex. The small scale of some of the paintings (at 10 x 12 inches, they're much smaller than the rest of Borremans’ work) enhance the feeling of toy figurines playing a twisted game with an open-ended narrative, and adds a further dimension to his mysterious depiction of human nature.

It’s a body of work which develops as each layer is unveiled: the challenging, almost disturbing first impact is softened as the humorous context of Borremans’ inspiration is revealed. 

For the show, he has transformed the gallery into a dark and foreboding space – presenting his works on a deep bottle-green background with minimal illumination. A small hardcover catalogue exquisitely designed by the artist with his long-term graphics collaborator, designer Kim Beirnaert, accompanies the show – a perfectly formed document of this memorable body of work.