Michael Borremans

by Marta Gnyp for Zoo Magazine #40, July 2013

One of the most interesting painters of this moment, the Belgian artist Michael Borremans (1963) has consequently created an impressive oeuvre of enigmatic, psychologically-charged and visually staggering works.

MG: How do you prepare for an exhibition?

MB: I have always a lot of ideas and gradually they go through a distillation process. It starts with the concentration of thoughts. Once a month I have a sleepless night and then I’m feverishly thinking and somehow I’m a bit sharper than usual. I’m writing down all sorts of things that would keep me busy the following month. It happens very organically. Each exhibition is another story, also thematically, if you can speak of themes at all.

MG: Why wouldn’t you speak of themes?

MB: I do not work thematically. But ultimately, works from a certain period have always an element that connects them together. So you could say that there is a kind of subject; for example there was a time when I painted sleeping girls, or girls who seemed to be dead. That’s probably a way to express something that you’re subconsciously dealing with.

MG: Have you ever tried to analyze it?

MB: No, that’s not my job. Most probably it has a function somewhere. Other people do write about it. It’s not interesting for me because I work very intuitively. Everything is very chaotic. I can’t work structurally.

MG: What does intuitively means to you?

MB: Following my feelings.

MG: I think that’s such a loaded phrase.

MB: Yes, but it gives a kind of direction. I painted a large number of standing figures, for example. All of the sudden I thought: I also have a large cardboard plant. I already painted it before but by painting it again and digesting it a bit, I realized that I want to paint that cardboard plant in a huge size. That doesn’t come out of nowhere; it comes from a process that’s continuously going on. But how that exactly works…

MG: Do you always work like this?

MB: Yes, I don’t think I could do differently.

MG: I’ve read that you started as a photographer.

MB: I was intensively working with photography a few years and I had even seriously thought of doing something with it professionally.

MG: Art photography?

MB: Fashion photography. I studied visual arts and graphics at Saint Lucas in Ghent, followed a few years of photography. My grandfather was a photographer. My first contact with images was in the darkroom of my grandfather, as a three-year-old. Such an early experience is very deep so I developed a sincere passion for the photography profession. Seeing the images appearing in that darkroom was very magical, also because of the light. I discovered that I could do anything with this medium and also that I could stage things as I liked. I honestly thought I could become a professional photographer with a certain specialization. Consequently I photographed only women. I was very young. But at a certain time, I had to make a decision, because at the same time I was also drawing. I was very asocial at that time.

MG: In which sense?

MB: I lived fairly isolated. I felt like an old man when I was young. I preferably sat inside, was reading books and doing my work. I didn’t go out much. Until my 20th birthday I did, but by then it was enough.

MG: What kind of women did you photograph during that time?

MB: They were all beautiful women, mostly friends and friends of friends.

MG: In a studio?

MB: No, just wherever I could. I think some of the photos are still very strong. That says something, if you still think they’re good many years later. So there was some photographic potential in me, but at the same time I was aware of the fact that I had to choose. I was also involved in music back then. One day I took the decision and sold my guitars. Then I understood that I’m not social enough for a photographer and on top of this I had to travel a lot, while I hate traveling. So then I said: I’m going to be an artist, I’m going to do something that would need as few people as possible. That was my decision.

MG: Were you already painting at that time?

MB: No, I was drawing a lot and wished to develop it further. I started to paint only when I was 33. That was again a decision, which I took in one day; I remember very well where it was. I just moved to Ghent, I was living in a small rented house and had a small room where I used to work. In that room, on a beautiful sunny day, I told myself: today I’m going to paint, I may still draw a bit, but I’m going to focus entirely on painting. I knew that a painting could have a very different impact than a drawing. I suddenly realized what paintings could do for me.

MG: Could you use your drawing skills for painting or did it take a long time to develop new skills?

MB: It certainly did. I was trained in using shapes, light and shadow for drawings so these aspects were not difficult. But then you need to learn how to work with colors and with the materiality of paint and find your way in this area. That has been a permanent evolution for me; my earlier work was very thickly painted.

MG: How did you make a living at that time?

MB: I taught drawing at an art school, and I liked it very much. At the same time I knew I was not a real teacher; it was just a job to me. Ten years long I worked as teacher and at some point I decided that I’m not going to do this until my retirement because in that case I would become a frustrated old man, and that was really a nightmare. Somewhere in the mid-90s, I quit and concentrate exclusively on painting.

MG: That was also the time that painting was regularly declared dead within the art discourse.

MB: I fully understand why. But on the other hand, painting was never really dead. When I studied, there were the Neue Wilden; there was still attention for painting, even for figuration. When I began painting, my colleague, Luc Tuymans, started to gain attention for his work. I’ve also always followed the work of Gerhard Richter, a very interesting artist. Also he has become better with age, which is a characteristic of a good artist. I noticed I could find my own language within painting.

MG: Was the rich tradition of painting not intimidating you?

MB: That was exactly what was so interesting. It is a historically charged medium. I wanted to use that weight of history in my work. Like a judoka who uses his own weight to enforce his strikes and thrusts, I wanted to use the historical weight of painting.

MG: Do you want to measure yourself with the old masters?

MB: Not at all. It is more of a dialogue in which you participate. That’s why I have all these implicit associations in my work that refer to history of art. I find that interesting. If you want to do something pure and autonomous you should work with a new medium but it is impossible with painting; you can never be purely conceptual, since it is actually a romantic medium.

MG: What is romantic about painting?

MB: It remains an ultimately irreplaceable medium. It’s like a hammer: you can replace the material of a hammer with modern technology but the function stays ever the same. Painting is highly rudimentary; it has always existed and always will. Each era has painters who reflect upon the present time and its society; they are truly interesting witnesses from the art historical point of view.

MG: You hear sometimes voices that claim that painting doesn’t fit in the 21st century.

MB: Bullshit. Paintings are still the most reproduced images and they still bring the most money.

MG: Within the art market we can indeed speak about the triumph of painting.

MB: Do you know why? If there is a war you can just cut off the frame, roll up the canvas and carry it along. On top of this modern media are totally outdated after five or ten years.

MG: What also helps is that many paintings could be used as decoration.

MB: A painting often has a mystical aspect.

MG: When we talk about the market how do you explain the obsession with young abstract art?

MB: I don’t follow what is happening now. What interests me personally in contemporary art is usually not painting. I admire for example Paul McCarthy, especially because what he does is very different from what I do. There are certainly some similarities in the content of our works, such as the way he uses clichés and interprets them. I do that too, but in a very different style.

MG: You apply a more serene version.

MB: I want to make beautiful paintings. Or something that seems beautiful.

MG: When we talk about painting, we often talk about the development of this medium within modernism. Your paintings are very complex, psychologically and iconographically quite charged and full of references to art history. They are enigmatic, but formally they remain in the tradition of Velazquez or Manet; there is nothing shocking there.

MB: That’s right. Is that a problem?

MG: No. But your success questions the view that inventions of one’s own time are so important.

MB: I strongly question technology. My email coincidentally is not working at this moment and I love it. I can receive emails but cannot reply. I think that’s a great luxury.

MG: So making paintings with an iPhone like David Hockney is not meant for you.

MB: Technological interventions in painting don’t fascinate me. Meanwhile, I also completely abandoned the concept of reconstructing the photographic image in a painting. That’s not interesting, certainly not now. I still use photography as a technical intermediate step, but it is not recognizable.

MG: Knowing that your work is deeply rooted in the great tradition of painting, why do you have such a huge success?

MB: That has different reasons; one of the reasons I like less is that they are beautifully painted.

MG: Why don’t you like it?

MB:I need to make my paintings ‘beautiful’, otherwise it wouldn’t work. I can feel that this is essential to maintain the dialogue with the tradition. I see it certainly as my responsibility, but consider it interesting for myself as well. However, if people appreciate it only for that, I think they misunderstood the works. Because I also want my work to have other qualities. Maybe my work hasn’t arrived at that point yet. I am very critical of what I’m doing. If I have a retrospective exhibition and I am confronted with all my work, I often think that my work is good, but I wouldn’t do it now in this manner.

MG: Because?

MB: Because I’ve evolved in my thinking about what I want to do.

MG: A central idea remains that your work is a kind of platform to get the viewer thinking and make them an accessory to this thread of thoughts.

MB: In this perspective it is also true that the work is as intelligent as those who look at it.

MG: That’s easy to say. You shift the responsibility to the viewer.

MB: I’m trying to re-formulate the work each time anew; therefore I’m experimenting. A theme that often reappears in my work is the representation in and for itself. Therefore I’m going now to paint a cardboard plant. I never paint at first hand. I would never paint a portrait or en plainair. I only paint representations of things. It is interesting to project very different things into a medium than what the medium can actually bear itself. I take the viewer to another place and that has always fascinated me as an artist.

MG: Can you give an example?

MB: I was raised Catholic and had to go to church every Sunday where I could looking at the paintings hanging there. Not that they were so attractive, but it fascinated me that they were differently constructed spaces. A space that was a space or suggested a space despite that it was just a canvas. Thanks to this capacity a painting can evoke mysticism.

MG: But such an experience also occurs because of the time you take for looking. As a child in the church you are forced to watch a painting for an hour.

MB: It was so boring in the church…

MG: It was always a bit the same. You always go to the same place in the church. Perhaps it is the repetition that caused the mystical experience.

MB: Of which I’m now very grateful. Another thing that was crossing my mind in the church was the enormous possibilities that such a space offers. You could build in another floor, you could use this wing for this or for that, you could make it to a studio. Already as a child I knew I was going to be somewhat like an artist. I’ve known it since I was six years old.

MG: Your new studio is in a chapel.

MB: It is a perfect place: 15 meters deep, 8 meters wide and 9 meters high, and windows on one side facing north with a large statue of the Virgin Mary.

MG: Was it strange to your family that you wanted to become an artist?

MB: No, they could feel it. I was not good at football and stuff like that.
And I was always drawing in my bedroom; I was not so social as a child. I have become much more social thanks to teaching for ten years. I have changed a lot in my social behavior; I now even dare to speak to a group of people. Before, I would be terrified.

MG: Did you have talent for drawing?

MB: I had talent, but not extreme, I was not a child prodigy. When I was very young, I slept in the same room with my seven years older brother and my brother tried to scary me so much that I begged him to sleep with him in his bed. I was three back then, he was a bit of a sadist. In return, I had to make drawings on his back, and he had to guess what it was. It was a game: I was allowed in his bed if I, for example, made 20 drawings on his back. I don’t know whether it has influenced my artistic development, but it was certainly a remarkable period that continued for a few more years.

MG: You wanted to be an illustrator?

MB: I thought that I understood how a drawing works and it immensely interested me. So I was convinced that I was going to do something in that direction. Whatever that would be, it might have been something commercial, perhaps director of a TV series.

MG: You decided to go to art school.

MB: From that moment on, I liked to go school. Before it was awful, I always got punished because I was drawing and was not paying attention to what was going on in the class.

MG: Punishment is also a theme in your work.

MB: In Catholic schools in the late 60s and early 70s, you easily got boxes on the ears and punishment writings.

MG: Did you never have enough of drawing?

MB: No, although the success stayed away. The work from that time is still good though. I was convinced about its quality already then, although no gallery or museum wanted to show something. I kept the work under my mattress and I enjoyed my hidden treasure. I thought: my career is not really flourishing, but it is fascinating to do this work. It was just a pity that nobody saw it because ultimately art is communication. I consoled myself with the thought that when I’m dead, the work will be found and appreciated. I was convinced about it. Success came at a time when I was no longer expecting it. That’s why I could put it into perspective.

MG: How did the success come?

MB: I exhibited several times in small, local non-profit spaces. It usually went like this: twelve visitors would visit the show; they would say that the show was interesting but I sold nothing. I thought, this doesn’t make sense. But then I heard that here in Ghent a new space for artists had been opened by some people from the Association of Friends of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent. If you as a promising artist would show your work there, you would be either totally taken down or you would be immediately noticed by a gallery owner or collector, what for instance happened to Luc Tuymans. I knew I must have an exhibition there. I put quite a lot of effort, but I ultimately succeeded and the show was a huge success. Mind you, I was 37 by then. I could sell everything but I did the opposite. I thought: this is my capital, which I will not throw away immediately. The museum has bought a painting; there was a new director at that time. Whenever a museum buys your work, everyone wants to buy a work from you as well. There was also direct interest from several galleries. I kept them all at bay because I was overwhelmed a little.

MG: Didn’t you think that you should feed the market first and then continue to produce?

MB: No. I knew these works were worth more and I wanted to keep them, too. I realized that this work was my ticket to build my career. If I’d sold all that work, I’d still have pictures of it, but that is less convincing. I played a very tactical game. I have always set high standards for myself, also in this area. I wanted a real career and not something half-hearted, otherwise I’d rather keep my work hidden under my mattress.

MG: Didn’t you doubt about your art during the time when there was no interest in your work?

MB: Of course I did. I was always convinced that it was right what I was doing, but I wasn’t convinced that others would like my work. I thought the time is not ready for it yet or the world does not deserve my art.

MG: What do you think of the prices which are now being paid for your work?

MB: Great for the owners. It doesn’t keep me awake at night.

MG: Is it a kick?

MB: Yes, in certain way. It’s also a danger. Personally I find contemporary art overrated. If you look at 19th century work, for example of Courbet, not a random name, the prices are much lower.

MG: What went through your mind when you heard that a small painting of yours was sold for more than $600,000?

MB: Works in a gallery do not sell for such prices. I think I have sold that one work for something like fifty thousand euros. That’s nice for the owner, of course. When my work entered the auction for the first time and achieved a high price, it did make me think that it’s good to know why am I painting. I have many works, which I do not sell, which I don’t even show. I was never in it for the money. I’m experimenting a lot with other media: what I earn with a painting, I can invest in films and sculptures.

MG: What is the ultimate goal of these experiments?

MB: That it would lead to something relevant. That somewhere in the visual culture it would find its function. Painting has the big advantage of producing resistant images that don’t easily disappear in today’s iconoclastic spate.

MG: Have you been ever afraid of losing your talent?

MB: No. My eyes are not as good as they were in the beginning, that’s what I’m more worried about. But if I lose everything tomorrow, I would still be very grateful. Then I’d do something else, but something that would also be visual.

MG: Are you still continuing making films?

MB: I have a few projects waiting, but they are technically very demanding. I think I have to go to Hollywood so to do it I would need to give one of my paintings as a gift to the producer… I am very keen to do it though. I cannot put the production off the ground myself; that is too complex, and it won’t be good.

MG: When is a work good?

MB: When things happen that you cannot really control.

MG: Isn’t that a cliché?

MB: Yes it’s a cliché, but it’s also true. What I do is one thing; what happens accidentally is precisely the element that makes the work very good or just good. That’s what causes the work to rise beyond the artist himself. You should just be thankful for that when it happens. But as an artist you must be able to see it. Sometimes something interesting happens and people don’t see it.

MG: That’s interesting, I spoken with Thomas Schütte early this year and he said almost exactly the same thing. He said, ‘As an artist, I can only create the context in which art happens.’

MB: He’s right. Same here. A very good artist, by the way, I admire his work. Some sculptors are fantastic.

MG: Do I understand that sculpting may be one of your next projects?

MB: Well, yes, I did show a sculpture last year, here in Ghent – a large sculptural installation. I’ve been experimenting with this medium for over ten years now but I had to throw away most of those works. It is a painstaking process.

MG: Is it about the human form?

MB: It’s figurative. But it is very time-consuming; I do it as a hobby since I’m not technically educated as a sculptor. But today there are technical possibilities that are astounding. One can scan something and let it be made four meters high using each possible material that can be milled out or printed. These new things create unprecedented opportunities and I keep on thinking about it.

MG: Are you excited about the upcoming exhibitions?

MB: Showing new work is sensational, because I always have stage fright. In September I will have an exhibition at Zeno X in Antwerp, then two in Tokyo, and next year a retrospective at Bozar in Brussels.

MG: Is it important to you that your retrospective is held in Belgium because of your Belgian collectors?

MB: It is good that it is in Bozar, but the collectors in Belgium are really something of the past year. They were especially museums and collectors in the U.S. who were purchasing my work at an early stage, less the European museums. Now they do want me.

MG: Why was America so early?

MB: I think it has to do with the fact that for already a long time,
America and New York particularly have taken over the pioneer role in art. I sound like I’m generalizing now, but since the 70s and 80s Europe has only followed trends; nobody sticks his neck out; most institutions aren’t there for artists very early on. Next to that, European museums have no money. It’s a problem that needs to be seriously reconsidered. Apparently, Americans are willing to take the risks, and are at that point without complexes. My work’s always been very well received in America.

MG: How did Americans discover your work? At a fair?

MB: Yes.

MG: What do you think about the fact that many young artists imitate you?

MB: They usually don’t do that well. They often didn’t understand anything. Of course it is flattering to have influence but I prefer my work to inspire, rather than to be imitated or copied. What I usually see I find fairly uninspired. And I do not like being pushed into the same corner as those who imitate me. You could dedicate an entire career to a particular element that I have touched in my work and delve into that instead.

MG: If you would think in terms of discourse and theoretical developments, development rather than progress, which place would you give your art in this framework?

MB: It’s very synthesizing, I think, in the contrary to the last century where we have had more analytical approach. And that makes it interesting. If it would have impact, that would be the important aspect.

MG: Do you think that you can pass on this synthesis as an aspect of painting to other artists?

MB: Yes, because it can be applied in different ways, not only in painting. By the way, painting can also be horrible. I can fully understand all those curators who organize big events and shows that don’t include painting.

MG: What could still form a challenge for you in painting?

MB: Take a look at Goya or Manet – try to keep it that simple. That’s extremely difficult. G_etting exactly that nuance of a specific spot. It is exactly a tiny little difference that causes whether there is an effect or not. And you can’t really approach that rationally; you’re in a flow, it happens and you see it happen. Sometimes I’m lucky and that’s addictive. Sometimes I look at Velazquez and then I’m talking to him.

MG: How do you talk to him?

MB: How something is painterly solved, how suggestions are evoked: it seems technical, and partially it is technical, but the other part is very intuitive. Recognizing this in work of someone else is very pleasant – moments of touching emotions, being so close to the other artists. I had such a weird experience: years ago I visited the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam. I was engaged with etching a lot, and copied and studied much of his work. In the Rembrandt House you could see several of his etchings but most of them were reprints. However, there was a number of prints done by Rembrandt himself. Because he could paint so well he made those etchings into paintings, he brought magic in it. I noticed that and I suddenly felt his arm around me, that warmth and hear him saying: ‘You understand me at least.’ I was 15 or 16. I imagined it, but after this embrace, I thought, we are of the same kind, and yes, that’s encouraging.

MG: Didn’t you think, I’m crazy?

MB: No, it was deep, I understand it was imagination, but it seemed so real.

MG: So you were very early on admitted to the greats.

MB: I thought I might have a chance, if Rembrandt accepted me.