"A precisely-aimed reach into the immeasurable flow of things."
For nearly three decades, German painter Neo Rauch has mesmerized and mystified viewers with his boundless imagination and his ability to give shape to the intangible, the bizarre, and the paradoxical. His figurative compositions, which also imply abstraction, reach far into the histories and myths of communal living, of ideology, faith, creativity, and the subconscious. From all of these realms Rauch spins scenarios with a pronounced absence of the linear and the logical, or of common temporal and spatial perspectives. Giant humans cradle their miniature selves or tower over dwarfed others; small German towns assume Himalayan dimensions; old-time laborers and modern-day businessmen engage in enigmatic tasks involving obsolete tools; trees grow houses like fruit, fields grow explosives like vegetables; sea creatures breed women, menfolk morph into flocks of birds; boulders become clouds, clouds become words; and arteries of bulging paint, hazardous-looking liquid, or pure energy snake or flow through it all.
Rauch’s palette ranges widely between tricolored scenes suggesting underexposed or lost histories and extravagantly colored canvases with dramatic, almost fluorescent highlights. His protagonists, whom he politely calls his picture personnel, serve the painting before they serve a story. They are employed for the purpose of creating tension, harmony, and discord of color and form. Rauch follows these figures’ evolution on the canvas, observing their influence, their pace and authority, which then prompts him to drive their activities further.
Physical and mental labor and, more recently, explicitly artistic labor, have always been in the center of Rauch’s interest. His early, agitprop-style compositions featuring pensive-looking staff (toiling toward alleged progress under looming watchwords in formal yet off-kilter semi-industrial landscapes) later gave way to more allegorical and epic scenes whose elements of folklore and myth seem at once local and elusive. Yet always, the depictions of men and women's active efforts and gestural communication, as disparate and enigmatic as they may seem, result in a strong sense of community in the painting. There’s an undisclosed common goal that Rauch’s protagonists dutifully pursue among globs of mysterious matter.
I’ve always been fascinated by the existential mood yet distinct air of neutrality and moral detachment that prevails in Rauch’s painted societies. While there’s conflict, even rebellion and upheaval, there’s neither overt terror nor affliction or even strain in the figures’ faces, no matter what type of crude or gentle acts they are engaged in. The man bound in ropes, about to be beheaded, appears in a strange and accepting union with his slayer. Victims and perpetrators are part of the same coin and dependent on each other. There’s no tension in a play without a villain; there is no progress without conflict. Like in a selfless universe, all participants seem to contain multitudes and to possess the fluidity to change and morph into one another.
The serene, unperturbed facial expressions in Rauch’s paintings are somewhat reminiscent of Western religious art, especially Giotto, the master of Italian pre-Renaissance who was active at the brink of a new era, just before individualism, science, and perspective started to enter painting. Rauch obviously knows how to paint in perfect perspective but he employs his skill to demolish ordinary notions of spatial proportionality. This allows him to present disparate events accumulatively and simultaneously, something only painting can pictorially accomplish. Everything exists in one single space and in one present: attempts from centuries ago face today’s endeavors face future pasts alongside individuals’ dreams and collective utopias.
On the occasion of his latest exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York, I had the opportunity to ask Neo Rauch seven questions, which he answered in writing.
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