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A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:
Go to sleep, everything is alright. 
― “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison

Installation view of Michaël Borremans “The Devil’s Dress” at David Zwirner (all images courtesy the gallery)

Michaël Borremans’s The Devil’s Dress, and Neo Rauch’s Heilstätten, both currently on view at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, grapple with the human figure and landscapes in contemporary painting. Both artists provide inscrutable visions of humanity, but differ in approach and aesthetic. Where Borremans seems to use a scalpel to paint, Rauch uses a shovel. Borreman is Felix to Rauch’s Oscar.

Michaël Borremans, “The Loan” (2011), oil on canvas 122 x 80 3/4″

Borremans’ fourth solo exhibition, titled The Devil’s Dress, presents a series of solitary figures in nondescript spaces. An air of solemnity surrounds the paintings. The mood can be attributed to the muted palette, which suggest faded snapshots or news clippings. With unparalleled skill and ruthless efficiency, he creates uncanny likenesses of anonymous men and women. A few flicks of the wrist can suggest the porcelain skin of a young woman or the tawdry crinkle of a cheap chiffon cocktail dress. His application of paint is graceful, assured, and deft.

In “The Loan,” a woman stands on a pair of thick legs with her back to us, opposite a blank wall. The figure is notable for what she lacks: a head. In “Knives,” a youngish woman bows her head as if in prayer. A swoop of blonde hair is bobby-pinned to her scalp. A formless gray tunic conceals her body. In “Girl With Duck,” a moon-faced girl stands in a bare room, a faux leather jacket restraining the swell of her rising bosom.

Though his paintings offer intense approximations of life, Borremans’ cast of characters is bloodless. (If one of his sitter’s necks were to be slashed, embalming fluid would seep from the gash, not blood.) Throughout this suite of paintings, wayward daubs of paint and splashes of raw canvas purposively disrupt their photorealistic sense of illusion.

I have heard people describe his paintings as “theatrical” or “cinematic.” I cannot make this leap. To me, Borremanns is not so much using the figure to tell a specific story, or allude to a narrative, but rather as a platform or jumping off point to explore the strange possibilities of paint.

I identify his subjects as someone I may have seen in a picture book or an old newspaper rather than a particular person with a story or personal history. As I stood in the exhibition, I wondered why he would spend so much time meticulously rendering the visages of anonymous persons.

Installation view of Neo Rauch “Heilstätten” at David Zwirner

Rauch’s fifth solo exhibition, titled Heilstätten, is a collection of enigmatic scenes of men and women engaged in odd physical activities — holding the severed head of an owl, wielding a pickaxe, playing the fiddle — in pastoral and familial settings. At first, his canvases read like stories or folk tales. On closer inspection, coherent stories are anything but clear as vaguely Germanic caricatures segue from domestic interiors to drab public parks to barren landscapes. Like Borremanns, Rauch develops certain elements of the painting, while leaving other aspects underdeveloped or half-formed. Each painting is a strange tableau of inexplicable spatial shifts.

Neo Rauch, “Das Kreisen” (2011), oil on canvas diptych. overall: 118 1/8 x 196 7/8″

In “Rota,” a lone figure wanders along a dirt path. A silver carnival-like spire thrusts into the sky like the Tower of Babel. In “Das Kreisen,” a broken-down burlesque singer in a rotten green dress shimmies on a wooden table in what looks to be an artist studio. A gaggle of men and women — festooned in contemporary and renaissance dress — surround her. A circular window located in the upper left-hand corner reveals autumnal skies. In “Fundgrube,” a motley crew of men and women partake in fruitless activities in a town square. A man in a three-piece suit buries (or unearths) a metal propeller. A pair of fifties housewives throw flower arrangements around an ugly sculpture in Germany. An old man in a yellowed wife-beater fiddles in the garage. There is lots of activity, but nothing is getting done. Everyone is together yet alone, oblivious to either friend or foe as they go about their bizarre duties.

What compels me to continue to look to Rauch is the sheer inventiveness of his compositions and imagery. There is a freewheeling exuberance to his Teutonic chain gang. Part of the fun (or befuddlement) in looking at these paintings is trying to piece together a story or narrative. However long I look, the meaning (if there is one) will remain elusive.

Michaël Borremans’s The Devil’s Dress and Neo Rauch’s Heilstätten continue at David Zwirner (525-533 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until December 17.

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