New York

Michaël Borremans

Welling up over and over in the sepulchral chamber carved out for it from David Zwirner’s cavernous Chelsea multiplex, Michaël Borremans’s looped film The Storm, 2006, is poised—like the concise, affecting show it fronted—at the extremities of both visibility and logic. Just over a minute long and projected to cinematic scale on a wall of the blacked-out space, the film is anything but tempestuous. Instead it’s all stillness, pure mood and palette: With a static gaze the camera blinks drowsily between light and darkness, eyeing three men sitting impassively in a corner, their black skin and matching cream suits set, with a whiff of fashion-ad tastefulness, against dove-gray walls and brown wooden floors. This air of elegant gloom was shared by the entire installation—the gallery was remade as a sober twilight kingdom uncharacteristically cut off from the rest of the Nineteenth Street complex, presumably to prevent some ripe spore from the Lisa Yuskavage show next door from floating in and insinuating a bit of kandy-kolored exuberance into the funereal gloaming.

If the physical setting seemed to be working a little too hard to drive its atmospheric point home, it may have been because the grisaille melancholy it was meant to amplify was already so pervasive in the paintings and films on view. Borremans is known for his refined style and for the portentous absurdism of his scenarios, which often feature characters engaged in cryptic activities that propose the human body as a subject of examination and alteration within bureaucratic or clinical environments. Here, however, he presented a suite of stripped-down paintings that, rather than implicate their figures in larger environments, isolate and decontexualize them. All but one of the show’s five small canvases focus on an individual anachronistically dressed and captured in a moment of cadaverous torpor, and each was overwhelmed, perhaps strategically, by the huge space. Three works titled The Load each feature a figure wearing a sort of medieval bonnet and turned away from the viewer. These figures’ emphatic immobility, like that of the supine man in Earthlight room, 2008, might be a function of deep psychic disturbance or actual physical death, yet based on the grave attitudes of the lethargic living figures in the accompanying trio of films, the difference between the two states may be functionally indistinguishable in Borremans’s world.

Shown here for the first time in the United States, Borremans’s films extend the formal and conceptual concerns of the paintings, and also return their unmoored characters to some sense of interpersonal, if not fully intersubjective, awareness. The same dun palette favored in the oils dominates the celluloid, and the bare stirrings of activity enacted by his filmed protagonists are as fraught and obscure as those played out by his painted ones. Taking Turns, 2009, the show’s ostensible centerpiece and its namesake, makes the most overt attempt at narrative trajectory. The short film features a half-length mannequin set upon a table (a motif, also seen here in The Apron, 2009, that has featured in Borremans’s paintings and drawings going back to the beginning of this decade). A woman performs a kind of slow pas de deux with the torso, which is revealed to be a copy of her own, literally grappling with it before eventually putting it back in a box, only to start the cycle again. Two of the three figures from The Storm reappear in The Feeding, 2006, another short loop displayed, like Taking Turns, on a fl at monitor hung like another canvas in the installation sequence. Here, the figures don’t sit but rather stand around a table, their hands not touching but seeming somehow to direct huge sheets of white cardboard that slowly rise and fall via an unseen levitational force—an arresting image whose lingering resonance lies, like much of the rest of the show’s work, in the uncanny spaces between cause and effect.

Jeffrey Kastner