Michaël Borremans

Cleveland Museum of Art

Near the end of his life, Baudelaire—bored and besieged by creditors—made a disastrous trip to Brussels. In 1865, he wrote to a friend: “This highly detestable Belgium has already done me a great service. It’s taught me to do without everything. . . . I’ve become sensible because of the impossibility of finding satisfaction.” Similarly, Belgian artist Michaël Borremans’s determinedly dour drawings show how much artists may achieve without finding, or offering, fulfillment or resolution.

Mounted on walls and tables in the Cleveland Museum of Art, the sixty-three small, detailed drawings in this exhibition had the appearance of old-master sketches. Borremans works in, among other media, pencil, ink, watercolor, ballpoint pen, varnish, and gouache on stamped envelopes, torn-off book covers, the backsides of photographs, and other discarded everyday materials. Sometimes he adds a touch of red, yellow, or green, but relies primarily on a subdued palette of black and brown. Many of the works juxtapose words with images, yet while these are frequently in English, they are also almost too small to read.

Borremans’s most successful drawings employ two related strands of imagery. The first is the making or manipulation of representations. The subject of The Jetlag Girl, 1996–99, for example, sticks pins into sculpted manikins, which appear to bleed, while in Manufacturers of Constellation, 2001, two women write on a mattress that is, according to the inscription, SOAKED WITH TEARS. In the second, groups of tiny figures are shown looking up at or walking below hugely oversize objects. The crowd of visitors in Small Museum for Brave Art, 2000, for example, is overshadowed by a monumental series of torso casts, while In the Louvre—The House of Opportunity, 2003, depicts a vast architectural model of the titular museum.

This distortion of scale is a constant in Borremans’s work, often sparking an element of narrative. In Trickland, 2002, female giants reposition houses, trees, and streets under cover of darkness, while in The German (part two), 2002, a group of people regard an enormous image of the upper body of a man wearing a suit. Suggestive of the subject of a hectoring political poster, he appears ominous, menacing. The Swimming Pool, 2001, pictures a man’s hand painting the words PEOPLE MUST BE PUNISHED on the gigantic image of a torso mounted on a wall above a crowd of diminutive swimmers, while The Conducinator, 2002, features a man, his back turned to the viewer, drawing a landscape. The draughtsman is so absorbed in this activity that he fails to realize that the landscape seems to be flowing from the support to fuse with his table.

Conman: You’re One Yourself, 2003, shows a man with binoculars above a slightly reworded inscription of the subtitle, and indeed Borremans’s imagemakers are con-men in spite of themselves. Artists often worry about the manipulative power of mass culture, and Borremans is no exception, but his subjects seem uninterested in controlling their own creations. Is he a closet iconoclast? Perhaps only an artist with his oddly laissez-faire view of representation would devote so much attention to illustrating its power. Various Ways of Avoiding Visual Contact with the Outside World Using Yellow Isolating Tape, 1998, shows six men with eyes masked in a manner suggested by the title. Only by masking your eyes, he suggests, can you protect yourself.

David Carrier