While Neo Rauch’s paintings are known for their impossibly cryptic narratives, his life is an enigma in its own right. Born in 1960 in Leipzig, East Germany, his last name means “smoke” and his first name was invented by his parents, who died in a train accident when Rauch was four weeks old. Rauch was raised by his grandmother in an apartment with walls covered in dark charcoal drawings from when his father was a twenty-one-year-old painting student at the Leipzig Academy of Art, where Rauch currently teaches.
“There was a prophecy that he would die early, and this seems to be in his drawings,” Rauch said in an interview several years back. “When he was five or six, he was walking hand in hand with my grandmother through a supermarket, and suddenly an old woman comes up and says to her, ‘Be careful with this boy, he will not live to be older than thirty.’” During his teens, Rauch also decided that he would study art at Leipzig.
While the Western art world was dominated by abstraction and various forms of post-modern expressionism, on the other side of the Iron Curtain Rauch and his fellow students at the Academy were painting still lifes and studying classical figure drawing. They developed an academic, representational style that stayed true to the academy’s two-hundred-year-old tradition.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, the East German art world experienced a bit of an identity crisis. Some completely abandoned the Leipzig tradition, while others, like Rauch, integrated elements of Western art into figurative works and found a renovated middle ground.
Rauch’s new show at David Zwirner is a smooth continuation of his earlier work, but his style has nonetheless evolved noticeably. This time the colors are more muted, the scenes more deserted, and Rauch seems to be reaching further back into history for inspiration. He is often compared to expressionist painters such as Georg Baselitz, Leon Kossoff and Alice Neel, but their influences are diminishing.
The eerie mood and drained palettes make uncharacteristically bright pops of jewel tones in pieces such as Das Kreisen especially jarring and strangely soothing. The show also includes one of his first sculptures, Die Jägerin (The Hunter). Die Jägerin is predictably Rauchian: a rural, chunky woman—a recurring character in his paintings—is holding a golden owl in her right arm and does not seem to be bothered by the three grotesque human heads emerging from her bosom.
Viewing a painting by Neo Rauch feels a bit like unintentionally driving through a cul-de-sac. Handsomely executed and filled with recognizable figures, objects, and historical motifs, Rauch’s large, moody paintings are instantly captivating. However, Rauch’s apparent narrative dissolves as the viewer attempts to string it together, and the viewer is forced to pull out and return to viewing it from a distance. The new show is titled Heilstätten, which loosely translates to “a place of healing,” but the title probably shouldn’t be taken too literally.
At a glance, Heilstätten, the piece that inspired the show’s title, looks like a page from a comic book. In the first frame, a man in a lilac jacket is leaning onto a woman as they walk down a small alley, and the man reappears in each subsequent frame. In the second frame, he seems to be battling a snake wrapped around his body, and in the next one he is hiding, with his back to the viewer, behind what appears to be a makeshift hospital. He is then seen washing his hands in an empty washroom with fifteen identical green sinks, and fainting at the sight of a plant. With the exception of the last frame, which is sectioned off in a sketchy outline and feels more like an after-thought, the scenes are presented as if they are happening simultaneously, but it’s hard not to hang on to the recurring character when nothing else seems to be making sense.
While Rauch’s compositions create a bizarre but cohesive ambience, the figures appear as if they are cut-outs in a collage, actors in a theater, or characters from various alternative realities that exist simultaneously. The scenes are quiet and pensive but also ominous and unstable—in Türme (Tower), three men dressed in red, blue, and yellow feed a mythical animal with no eyes. The man in front pours what seems to be diesel into the beast’s bowl, and the man in red disciplines the beast with a stick.
Dreamlike scenes are no longer sufficient to satisfy the contemporary sci-fi savvy, post-surrealism imagination. What makes Rauch’s work permanently engaging is that it is impossible to arrive at any firm conclusions about its content. The diesel barrel is tilted towards the bowl, but nothing is pouring out. Rauch demonstrates perspective in the background, but the characters each seem to exist in planes of their own. Although their postures indicate movement, they don’t seem to be especially engaged with anyone but themselves.
In the background, what seems to be a face emerges from the night sky, but it could also be a map or tree branches, and a third of the background is completely covered with a nondescript blob of ochre paint. At the same time, the primary colors and classic triangular composition miraculously stabilize and unify the eclectic image, reminding the viewer to consider the big picture.
The color choices, composition, bucolic Saxon landscapes, and trademark combination of humor and seriousness are conspicuously German, and critics are constantly debating Rauch’s thesis on German identity. Yet, although Rauch’s works are overflowing with references to all stages of German history, to the viewer’s frustration they don’t ever seem to show any intention to outline a unified, intelligible identity. What they do offer is a dramatic, coherent visual atmosphere that can be counted on to generate powerful emotional reactions if the viewer doesn’t get too close. More than anything, Rauch’s paintings challenge the nature of recognition and the extent to which symbols can be interpreted. They open dialogues not only with the viewers’ aesthetic, but also their intellectual and personal history.
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