Michaël Borremans

The Acrobat

David Zwirner
525 W 19th Street
New York
Apr 28th — Jun 5th

Learn more

In With Animals (2021), four people stand before a towering display case, only their backs and the svelte outline of their shadows visible. They observe the container, intently waiting. For what? And what are they looking at? Who can say.

Michaël Borremans’s thrilling paintings seize you with suspense, propelled by the unseen. In the 15 works that make up “The Acrobat” at David Zwirner—the painter’s first New York exhibition in 11 years—the act of observation emphasizes distance by highlighting the unknown. Psychologically charged portraits are desaturated in color, and a theatrical series of paintings depicts people in anachronistic attire observing glass vitrines in natural landscapes.

Borremans’s work functions, ironically, on an illusion of proximity. Slanted bird’s-eye views of people in sparse landscapes suggest omniscience while his otherwise intimate portraits of somber adolescents are shrouded with costume. In The Acrobat, an androgynous figure is sheathed in flesh-toned skullcap, while a boy in The Apprentice (both works 2022) wears a padded grey bodysuit that ends in a conical hat. More often than not, the figures are oblique and their gazes evade you. Even up close, they remain distant.

The paintings of glass vitrines magnify a sense of shared experience: we wait as his figures wait, we observe as they observe. In various instances, the cases divulge murky silhouettes and fragments of people standing upright or on their heads; elsewhere, the scintillating reflection of sunlight or dark brushstrokes cloak their contents. Their settings elude cultural and geographical classification. Confined yet on display, they offer an uncanny, estranged voyeurism. One wonders whether the vitrines are actually reflective, mirroring those who observe them.

The more I look at Borremans’s work, the more its estrangement grows. Fashion flirts with various time periods: bonnets and knee-length dresses evoke the ’60s while golden, hooded puffers suggest the 21st century. Whatever historical references can be unearthed in Borremans’s work—doesn’t The Apprentice’s steepled hat evoke the capirotes of the Catholic Brotherhood?—are stripped of temporal context.

“The Acrobat” is animated by a cinematic introspection. With their convergence of reality and artifice, observance and being observed, performance and intimacy, Borremans’s paintings engender more questions than they answer. They suspend the viewer in silence and promise a surprise never comes. —Isabella Garces

Michaël Borremans, The Double, 2022. © Michaël Borremans, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner