NEO RAUCH At the Well
New YorkDavid Zwirner Gallery
November 6 – December 20, 2014
Neo Rauch has all but cornered the market on post-modern historical painting. While his histories don’t overtly present as such, he does thread a specific temporal narrative (German, idealist) through what one might describe as the hangover dream of the repressed nation-state. The nation-state haunting here is the former East Germany, a state cornered by its political designation, one aligned to Cold War socialism and the social realism that became the sanctioned genre of that limited corner. Rauch doesn’t go about incorporating his experience like some of his older forebears, Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke; they, like him, grew up in the East and plotted their aesthetic self-creation from a point of departure left over from official culture. Rather, his approach represents a return to a kind of figuration that Richter and Polke most probably eschewed as being too close to the official social realist style. Rauch seems unafraid to go there simply because historical distance may have made it palatable again for his own generation, for whom the style most likely became, ironically, more of a pop idiom.
Rauch’s cast of dimly characterized figures in this new series of paintings includes soldiers, village festival goers, workers, shopkeepers, students, businessmen, craftsmen, matrons, politicians, professors, and fools—in short, almost every category of citizen to make up a potential working social order. All of the elements are there, but the artist scrambles them in a virtual anarchy of figural gestures displacing the suspension of political belief needed to coalesce such an order. One is left wandering in these paintings, navigating the lack of clear narrative between heraldic slugs, somnambulant boatmen, sickbed protagonists, hunched crones and hulking giants, sportive clerics, thoughtful sculptresses, and scarlet maids born of flayed fish. These characters all collide in scenarios underscored by the detached assumptions of shared dogma central to medieval morality and passion plays, rather than a more modern, Shakespearean pathos that might lead one to actually identify with some of the enacted scenes. The lack of any given belief in the artist’s peculiar, post-post-modern metaphysic allows for surrealistic free association while keeping his absurd scenarios uncannily generic.
Rauch’s painterly technique supports this disenchanted surrealism with clay-like drawing and modeling, extreme shifts between the grisaille and complementary color structures, and impossible perspectival transitions made plausible by the artist’s brilliant knack for smoothing these compositional ruptures, maintaining a haptic sense of the whole. It is his talent for adumbrating the gestalt of painting’s formal elements that creates the real sense of belief in these works.
Most of the paintings in At The Well are very large, appropriate to the scale of ambition of a post-modern Courbet. Rauch, like Courbet, assembles large ensemble casts put to allegorical purpose. One thinks of the older artist’s “Burial at Ornans” (1849 – 50) or “The Painter’s Studio” (1854 – 1855) when considering Rauch’s similarly overcrowded pictures. Like Courbet, too, Rauch sublimates the narrative thread of woman as mother/earth/goddess. Consider “Der Blaue Fisch” (2014), a painting that depicts a patriarchal figure helping a fully dressed woman out of a wound in a large, freshly caught fish. He is aided by a flaying fishmonger and attended by a punting canal man. It’s a flat-footed, secular “Birth of Venus” (1485 – 87) in an acrid red, green, and yellow landscape of windmills and humble cottages evoking Old Europe. This event draws the attention of the rest of the workaday village, effectively crowd-sourcing the mysticism of a quotidian epiphany. In “Skulpteurin” (2014) another female protagonist, this time more matronly and less passive, mounts a ladder to sculpt a monumental female form in flesh-colored stone. A small maquette of the sculpture stands on a pedestal nearby while drone-like artisans in guild caps stand ready to hand the sculptress her tools. In both of these paintings, Rauch comes closer to a clear allegorical statement than in most of the other works in the show. While Courbet may have coded his allusions to a presiding feminine spirit in works such as the gushing cave of “The Source of the Loue” (1864) and the centralized open grave in “Burial at Ornans” (1849 – 50) Rauch makes explicit the role of the woman as both the passive object of fascination and active maker of worlds. The exhibition’s title, At the Well, might be connected to “la source” (1868) but in Rauch’s case more towards a nationalistic wishing than an elemental wondering.
One of the most complicated works in the show is “Heillichtung” (2014), a vast 9-by-16-foot canvas that sets up a field triage in an alpine landscape. The painting is further populated by incongruously lute-toting soldiers emerging from a ramshackle corrugated steel barracks and what appears to be a former artillery crew attending to a fallen tree trunk. These figures are scattered in widely varying scale in a mountain valley with giant mushrooms and two dueling sculptures that recall Brancusi’s “Endless Column” (1918) and Rodin’s “Monument to Balzac” (1898). On the far horizon a castle burns a la Ruscha’s “LA County Museum on Fire” (1965 – 68) and an organic-looking radio tower topples like one of H.G. Wells’s alien machines in War of the Worlds. Inserted into this nutty mélange, like a pop-up window on a computer, is a miniature Fauvist landscape painted in primary red, yellow, and green-blues. A translation of the title means “healing clearing,” most likely referring to war and its aftermath. Although Rauch was too young to experience WWII—the tragic, defining moment in German 20th-century history—with this work he makes reference to the residual need to come to terms with that moment for his countrymen of all generations, past or future. In painting allegorical content in such an antic and kitschy way, Rauch simultaneously heals and reveals the inherent meaning behind this historical reckoning.
Because of his general tendency to distance himself from any ideological subtext of historical allegory, Neo Rauch remains an important if quixotic figure of post-modern figurative painting. By reanimating the rhetorical mechanisms of obsolete historical narrative as idiosyncratic follies, he simultaneously undermines the power of representational ideology while instilling belief in the continuity of dreams.