Belgian painter's work highlights ambiguous tension

Tan Weiyun
The first solo exhibition in China by Belgian painter Michaël Borremans is being staged at Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai.
Tan Weiyun
Belgian painter's work highlights ambiguous tension
Alessandro Wang

“Michaël Borremans: The Promise” at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai

Belgian painter Michaël Borremans is having his first solo exhibition "The Promise" on the Chinese mainland at Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai, a historically significant residence dating back to 1918.

Born in 1963, Borremans depicts the human condition by creating an ambiguous tension between his refined language and the portrayed subjects.

In his paintings, human figures and everyday objects are isolated in their own world, immersed in an absurd, uncanny, or dreamlike atmosphere.

Subtle or direct allusions to current socio-political events or art history are palpable in his work.

A permanent feeling of tension and anxiety pervades his art, and often, a sense of impending horror lurks beneath the apparent familiarity and intimacy of the portrayed scenes.

“The Promise” features 22 paintings by Borremans, and one of his films is showcased on the two main floors of the historic Rong Zhai.

At the entrance hall, the public will encounter a comfortable and intimate space with customized furnishings introducing Borremans’ aesthetics.

Moving to the second floor, visitors will confront his artistic practice through a selection of paintings representing strangely threatening objects.

Belgian painter's work highlights ambiguous tension
© Michaël Borremans

The mask is painted with loose expressive strokes.

The "Mask" (2008) presents a face portrayed as if it were a mask, floating against a neutral backdrop.

The facial features are painted with loose, expressive strokes, capturing a haunting, almost grotesque expression, conveying an enigmatic sense of concealment and emotional depth, rendered with a stark simplicity that is both striking and unsettling.

A short film, The Storm (2006), is also on view. It is a powerful visual narration of gestures and signs starring three motionless men, where the only changing element is the light and its angle.

Belgian painter's work highlights ambiguous tension
© Michaël Borremans

"The Storm"

The exhibition continues at the third level, including works that depict anonymous characters in an ambiguous and psychologically charged atmosphere.

In the painting "The Commuter" (2021), a figure is rendered in muted tones, dressed in what appears to be a protective or insulating garment, possibly hinting at themes of isolation or defensiveness.

The figure's head is enshrouded in a form-fitting covering, and the person's expression is contemplative, with a gaze that seems directed inward or at a distant point, probably conveying a tangible feeling of solitude and introspection.

Belgian painter's work highlights ambiguous tension
© Michaël Borremans

"The Commuter"

Borremans often crafts the scenes for his paintings through photography, meticulously arranging models, props, and lighting to create the desired composition.

While rooted in these carefully constructed photographs, his paintings transcend their origins, portraying an emotive, subjective reality where time and space blur into uncertainty.

“I’m always thinking of the psychological impact of an image that I’m creating when I’ll show it because you make a painting in the studio, but the act of painting is showing it," the artist said.

"I’m aware, or I’m thinking about, the effect on a possible viewer. It’ll be different for everyone, but I want to decide on the direction it has.”

Exhibition info:

Date: Through June 9 (closed on Mondays), 10am-6pm

Venue: Prada Rong Zhai

Address: 186 North Shaanxi Rd

Admission: 60 yuan

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