Deeply twisted: Michaël Borremans goes to the dark side in new London show

Five paintings in different sizes are hung on a dark blue wall. The room is dark except for the spotlight on the paintings.
Belgian artist Michaël Borremans uncovers his dark side in 'Black Mould', a new solo show at London's David Zwirner gallery, on display until Friday 14 August.
(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

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. 

The painting of five figures dressed in black robes and black hoods drawn over their heads are dancing in a ritualistic way. We can't see their faces.

Faceless silhouettes shrouded in black move in a manic and ritualistic way, leaving the viewer with nothing but an uncomfortable feeling of confusion as to their intent. 

(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

The painting of two figures dressed in black robes and black hoods drawn over their heads so that we can't see their faces. Their holding limbs are on fire.

A second series depicts the same characters in larger contexts, acting out gross, disturbing acts including juggling fiery limbs and copulation. 

(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

The painting of a figure dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over its head so that we can't see its face. The figure is dancing in a ritualistic way.

Defined by their mechanical movement, Borremans' figures take inspiration from the operator costumes of Japanese bunraku theatre. Though usually invisible against a dark background, here the artist shifts the focus and drags them into the light. 

(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

The painting of a figure dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over its head so that we can't see its face. The figure is standing still.

'This work is really reflecting the world of today,' says Borremans, who describes the series as both 'disturbing and dangerous'. 

(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

The painting of a badger is holding a piece of paper.

Other idiosyncratic pieces, such as The Badger's song – an anthropomorphic re-envisioning of the titular animal – complement the series' disorientating atmosphere; as a whole, the works create a sense of profound discomfort and unease. 

(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

A hardcover catalogue that has a figure dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over its head so that we can't see its face on it.

Placed on a dark navy-blue background, the artworks stand out in the darkness and remain isolated from each other, as if to further emphasise the eerie sense of disquietude. 

(Image credit: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

A hardcover catalogue that has a figure dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over its head so that we can't see its face on it.

small hardcover catalogue (opens in new tab) designed by Borremans with his long-term graphics collaborator, designer Kim Beirnaert, accompanies the show.

(Image credit: Michael Ainscough)

Inside the catalogue shows us two paintings of figures dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over their head so that we can't see their faces. One figure is standing still, and the other is dancing in a ritualistic way.

The publication is a perfectly formed, encyclopaedic contribution to the artist's body of work.

(Image credit: Michael Ainscough)

Inside the catalogue shows us two paintings of figures dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over their head so that we can't see their faces. The figures are dancing in a ritualistic way.

The show's figures play a twisted game with an open-ended narrative, adding a new, mysterious dimension to Borreman's existing depictions of human nature.

(Image credit: Michael Ainscough)

Inside the catalogue shows us a painting of people that are almost indiscernible to us. It's very theatrical.

Borreman's bizarre tableaux maintain a grim theatricality, seemingly following a dark symbolic language incomprehensible to the viewer.

(Image credit: Michael Ainscough)

Inside the catalogue shows us two paintings of figures dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over their head so that we can't see their faces. The figures are dancing in a ritualistic way around a badger.

Painting has remained a cental tenet in the Borreman's practice, a means of creating a simplistic visual world full of temporally disjointed figures (here engaged in inexplicable acts).

(Image credit: Michael Ainscough)

Inside the catalogue shows us a painting of two figures dressed in black robes and a black hood drawn over their head so that we can't see their faces. They are taking their robes off.

The provocative, disturbing actions of the artist's images are often set against a blank background, reminiscent of an empty artist's studio.

(Image credit: Michael Ainscough)

ADDRESS

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Rosa Bertoli was born in Udine, Italy, and now lives in London. Since 2014, she has been the Design Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees design content for the print and online editions, as well as special editorial projects. Through her role at Wallpaper*, she has written extensively about all areas of design. Rosa has been speaker and moderator for various design talks and conferences including London Craft Week, Maison & Objet, The Italian Cultural Institute (London), Clippings, Zaha Hadid Design, Kartell and Frieze Art Fair. Rosa has been on judging panels for the Chart Architecture Award, the Dutch Design Awards and the DesignGuild Marks. She has written for numerous English and Italian language publications, and worked as a content and communication consultant for fashion and design brands.