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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 and 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 at the center of Rauch’s interests. 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's 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 two sides of the same coin and depend 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 Italian pre-Renaissance master who was active at the brink of a new era, just before individualism, science, and perspective began 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.
Sabine Russ Most of your paintings are bustling with human activity, the emphasis being on the process instead of an identifiable product or outcome. I’ve always considered the actions and pursuits in your works as a kind of surrender—surrender to the urge to play but also to duty and compulsion.
Some of your new paintings evolve around a bedridden yet recovering man. He lends the compositions a sense of repose and relief from tension. There's a yielding to care, but also a yielding to the general condition of the painting, or of life perhaps?
Neo Rauch It is possible that this reveals one facet of my actual state. Unrelenting activity is still one of the main characteristics of my figuration, and forced repose, in the form of a bedridden figure, is occasionally the center of this active care. It might express a desire for rest and reflect the experience of receiving help in need.
SR How significant is the line between gesture and action in your paintings? Is gesture rather tied to an open-ended potential, while activity relates to a certain condition?
NR To be honest, I find it difficult to mark the difference between potential and condition. Naturally, my figures always remain in the gestural realm, but within the frozen gesture, they express the potential for action. As I develop and arrange my figures within the picture plane, I’m most interested in the moment prior to excess. All springs of the mechanism should be stretched to the extreme, allowing the actual event to take place only in the head of the viewer.
SR Looking at your paintings, the word providence comes to mind, not in the sense of divine providence but rather in terms of an intrinsic energy that exists independent from human intervention. In your works, all elements—landscapes, plants, animals, weather, people, their tools and shelters—join organically and not necessarily according to human logic. Things seem susceptible to our manipulation up to a certain degree, but ultimately they merge or disconnect according to their own laws.
In youth we want to change the world but with increasing age we might become more open to the possibility that our pursuits, principles, beliefs, and personal battles might dissolve into nothing more than a loud, perhaps indecipherable hum. As a painter of ceaselessly busy people, has your perspective on human activity changed over time?
NR I never wanted to change the world, neither the order of things nor my fellow citizens’ perceptions of life. I always preferred to just let the world in all its complexity impress itself upon me. I’ve tried, and I’m still trying—via a precisely-aimed reach into the immeasurable flow of things—to perform a kind of bundling. This bundling then is the artwork.
I want to add the optical to the acoustic phenomenon you mention. Léon Bloy considers prophecy possible—insofar as the gifted one is able to perceive an extract as a detail from within the time pattern which, by its nature, extends in all possible directions. Everything happens simultaneously. Thus, we move in orbits whose patterns of logic are revealed only beyond the time curtain destined for us. In other words, I believe in fate.
SR In traditional Chinese painting the human figure appears as a mite within a vast, mostly vertically layered landscape. Man is a tiny, subordinate part of a larger whole—of his natural surroundings and, in extension, of the universe. Western art, historically, tends to give man precedence over nature, depicting him as conqueror and ruler, inventor and agent of change. Keeping this contrast in mind, one could consider your paintings somewhere in between these traditions. Some of your figures are hybrids between human and animal; they even morph into landscapes, merge with objects or architecture, and adopt the settings’ dynamics and energy. Are you perhaps, in a European way, somewhat close to a non-European approach?
NR If this were true, we would have to ban the Romantic tradition from the European art historical context. Because Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea is by no means a figure in charge, but instead sees himself embedded in an overarching grand design. It was in fact the central characteristic of German Romantic painting to return man back to nature.
However, in general I agree that my personnel are closely interwoven with natural processes. This is a precondition that I have to impose on the entire painting from the start as I am trying to give it an existence as a natural entity, or an organism. I have to provide it with everything it needs to be viable—a functioning circulation system, a support structure that keeps it in balance in relation to gravity, and so on. The painting’s personnel automatically embrace these efforts; my figures swing along with the compositional flow and they only rebel when it is necessary for dramaturgic reasons. In short, a Romantic glance to the Far East.
SR My next question marks another kind of difference between East and West. The Berlin wall came down twenty-five years ago. The source for your hybrid creatures and for the incongruous and inexplicable quality of your paintings was often seen in the collision and union of two disparate ideologies and value systems. After more than two decades, is this still of interest or is it simply life that inspires the peculiar fusions and mutations in your paintings?
NR It was never true that the clash of the two ideologies or systems defined my work. My imagination and vision have always emerged from the mining shafts of my subconscious, and those run in a vertical, not horizontal direction. I was always more interested in arrangement than in orientation. One has to be able to arrange and settle oneself. Orientation requires a horizontal probing as well as acting in response to processes and predecessors; while arrangement implies a vertical tendency. Settlement generally takes place in a measured area which one organizes following one’s own parameters, in order to adequately set up one’s existence. Transferred to my work as a painter, this means that the indispensable ingredients of my work are derived from the closest proximity, my immediate environment.
SR Can paintings as paintings go astray?
NR At a certain point in its existence the image itself makes existential claims to its creator. It wants to be supplied with everything it needs in order to be. These are, of course, elemental aspects that find their reflection in the viewer’s sense of balance. Therefore, the painting cannot really go astray, but its creator can, if he or she is unable to comply with the demands of the work.
SR Your compositions provoke our analytical side. We want to understand, allocate, and classify, but the image doesn’t give an answer. Your reserve of symbols seems inexhaustible. Do you sometimes have to resist the temptation to solve the riddle for us?
NR No. I see it as my responsibility to keep the well of inspirational flow in darkness and protect it from being dried out by the beam of analytical headlights.
Translated from the German.
Neo Rauch's At the Well is on view at David Zwirner Gallery through December 20.