All great painters paint the history of painting. A few like Neo Rauch are called—or cursed, as the case may be—to paint capitalized History.
Born in 1960 behind the Iron Curtain in Leipzig, Germany, Rauch was nurtured by the twin sources of East German postwar identity: namely, the impoverished, romantic reality of Mitteleuropa and the bloated promises of the GDR’s Socialist reality. A graduate of the once stuffily academic, now fashionable Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts (where he currently teaches), Rauch was successfully sheltered from many of the West’s artistic developments, including Pop, minimalism, and the whacked-out sculptures and performances of Joseph Beuys.
Trained as a Socialist Realist painter, Rauch largely avoided what he has called “the cerebral nature of the artistic environment” and the all-out postmodern assault on painting that demoralized legions of artists in the West. A product of a truncated modernity—in the words of Arthur Koestler, of the God that failed—Rauch has over the last few decades become contemporary art’s most ambitious, if ambivalent, storyteller. A master of painterly fractures, spatial dissonances, acid-color correspondences, and mock-heroic characters, Rauch has done for narrative painting what a few American artists (read John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage) did for figuration in the 1990s: problematize it, so that it yields ever weirder, more oracular results.
Rauch, whose latest solo exhibition is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is, in fact, the first great visual artist to bear witness to the end of Soviet-style socialism and its aftermath. A loss of faith in the mechanics of progress haunts Rauch’s paintings like a recurrent dream, pointing up his canvases’ oneiric inspiration. Working directly from dreams and their associations, Rauch has long crafted his paintings without the aid of preparatory drawings or studies. Expertly assembled with a view to confecting balanced compositions of shapes and colors, their constituent parts—nondescript buildings, moody swaths of greenery, stage-set drapery, and a cast of characters seemingly taken from the pulp covers of Ayn Rand novels—are connected spatially but stand alone, set side-by-side in an artistic deep freeze.
By titling the exhibition “para,” from the Greek prefix meaning “beside,” Rauch invokes a phenomenological simultaneity that owes less to Merleau-Ponty than to John Lennon (“I am he as you are he as you are me/and we are all together”). The multiple linguistic associations the title brings forth—parallel, paradox, paranormal— further layer a group of works that, for all their vibrating visual brio, stand largely as allegories of an ideological wasteland, undecipherable landscapes peopled by Ionescan figures in search of rational, redemptive, even useful stories to make their own.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, Waiting for the Barbarians, is a case in point. An epic welter of vanishing points stitched together to approximate a Hanna Hoch photo-collage, the painting crosses figures engaged in a popular call to arms with a Bosch-inspired alien invasion placed cheek-by-jowl with a bizarre species of bullfight, the multiple storylines tied together by forceful painterly plotting akin to Hitchcock’s dream sequence in Spellbound. Another painting, The Flame—in colors that recall the washed-out hues of Eastern Bloc product design—presents a taciturn young man dressed in a claret-colored dinner jacket striding deliberately into the past. The fact that his legs are restrained by two-by-fours for plinths and his feet stuck in a painter’s trough brings up the question: “Is this an allegory for painting today?” You betcha!
But it’s in Paranoia—a third painting from this suite of 14 Rauch made expressly for his low-ceilinged, cramped room at the Met—where he gets most carried away with his pictorial brainteasers. Inside a painting studio distorted by several false perspectives, Rauch arrays three figures: a man in a No Coward suit; a jungfrau in fashionable knee-high boots; and a skeptical, modern-day fellow in khakis and a purple T-shirt (the artist?). Together they scrutinize a yellow curtain flanked by a pair of candles, about which a hint is provided in the form of a pair of fringed word balloons reiterating the painting’s title. The most Magrittean of Rauch’s works, Paranoia explores, in the vein of the Belgian modernist, the slippages between words and the things depicted, with an additional turn of the screw—since what’s depicted is not a thing at all but a feeling or an idea, albeit one with fangs for teeth. (Isn’t the sensation that things are being hidden away the definition of paranoia?)
Totally agnostic in terms of the readings afforded his work, Rauch has long dealt in “irreconcilable spheres” and “anachronistic hallucinations” that he arrays freely without recourse to rational hierarchies. “For me,” he has said, “painting means the continuation of a dream with other means.” A 21st-century echo of Goya’s sleep of reason that produces monsters, Rauch paints in a time after the monsters have packed up and gone home. What remains are violent new breakthroughs. That and the transformative power of paint to grasp something genuinely new.