Neo Rauch, “At the Well”
David Zwirner Gallery, New York | November 6 - December 20, 2014
By ADRIAN COLEMAN, NOV. 2014
Twenty-five years ago, a member of the East German Politburo fatefully misread his notes. Speaking on live television, the official announced plans to ease travel restrictions across divided Berlin. The government had intended to break the news quietly in the early morning, using bureaucratic language and controlled, gradual changes. Nevertheless, on the evening of November 9, 1989, thousands of East Berliners overwhelmed the uninformed border guards. In a single night, the crowds reduced the Berlin Wall to memory and debris. At a ceremony commemorating the Wall’s collapse, Chancellor Merkel remarked how this particular date was in fact fraught with other anniversaries. In 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated following defeat in the First World War. In 1923, Hitler attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the Bavarian government. In 1938, the Nazis desecrated Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues on Kristallnacht. The chancellor described a day layered in ghosts, phantoms of historic episodes juxtaposed across the German psyche.
During the week of such reflections, David Zwirner opened his latest exhibition of the Leipzig painter Neo Rauch. The confluence was poignant. Rauch has distinguished himself combining pieces of German culture and history into bizarre, dream-like paintings. His early work mined the imagery of printed, Communist advertising and mid-century science fiction. Over time, Rauch’s graphic tendency has incorporated moments of more nuanced, classical modelling. His later figures, once limited to hard-working comrades, are sometimes dressed and coiffed like Robert Schuman. When Rauch showed at the Metropolitan in 2007, the Times critic Roberta Smith decried his paintings as scattershot collages. Yet Rauch’s current show is his most cogent display. At the quarter centennial of the Wall’s demise, the coincidences described by the chancellor were uncanny but not arbitrary. They are appendices to the Iron Curtain saga. Rauch’s paintings can be similarly jarring, but the memories and hallucinations are salvaged from the same archaeological pit.
The most arresting aspect of the new work its color - Rauch has always been an interesting colorist, but his palette has become at once more restricted and more flamboyant. In the painting Der Felsenwirt, for instance, Rauch irradiates areas of a neutral canvas with electric shocks of pink. Throughout the show, the illusionistic rendering occurs within the gradations of a monochromatic base. Then Rauch applies a limited number of flat, saturated hues in places. The technique may derive from Rauch’s print-based past, but the incandescence of the color is like the glow of old hand-tinted films. Each painting has a deliberate chromatic haze. They exist within a strange but very particular tonal world.
Many paintings portray one or several figures attending a principle character. The fantasies of each relationship vary, but there are notable similarities. A crustacean-handed woman nurses a convalescent. Men in breeches, one sporting a messianic haircut and Chuck Taylors, surround an ailing man. Speared villagers cut a red-dressed woman from a fish’s belly. Shoremen retrieve a golden body from the surf, its arms splayed like Gormley’s Angel of the North. Physically, each individual is somewhat anonymous. Rauch paints their features unspecifically but defines them by this subject-object association. Peripheral figures also gaze upon the ministration, which is often centered on strong compositional diagonals. This focus, like nativity paintings, suggests allegories extracted from a redemptive narrative.
Rauch’s previous exhibitions have not a featured such an overt motif. Even the paintings without an act of savior evoke new life. In Skulpteurin, an artisan completes a colossal statue carved of seemingly real flesh. In Am Brunnen, a helmeted soldier points towards a top-hatted gentleman and a wall looming above their heads. On the figures’ side and behind the wall, outlandish vegetation sprouts forth in opposing shades of purple and saffron.
Despite their thematic cohesion, the paintings are not obviously decipherable or heartening. Rauch’s new work is his most mythological. He exchanges his past industrial settings and borrowed social realism for small villages, of De Chirico towers, psychotropic plants, and otherworldly totems. The real knockouts of the show are its skies. Rauch conjures the atmospheric foreboding of a nuclear age Turner. Significantly, the skies indicate the paintings' chronological ambiguity. The quality and the direction of their light does not always correspond to the shadows cast in the paintings. In Marina, for instance, the stark chiaroscuro of the clock has little to do with the diffuse light through billowing clouds. The paintings do not exist in a precise moment. They belong to a psychological time, of multiple instants compressed into a complex memory. In Über den Dächern, the sky in fact is seamed. An edge divides discontinuous cloud- and smoke-filled expanses. In Heillichtung, a corner of the painting reconcieves the larger landscape as if by infrared scan. The giant mushroom canted above the forest is perhaps a heavy-handed augur of this alternate scenario.
The paintings are like an unfinished film whose celluloid frames are superimposed. Elements of parallel stories and potential outcomes appear incongruous, but the aesthetic consistency implies a common sequence stacked into a palimpsest of hope, dread, and absurdity. Rauch envisions the same gamut of emotions pondered in Ms. Merkel’s speech. Symbolically, the renewal scenes against the ominous backdrops is comparable to the celebration of the Wall’s end on a day of terrible anniversaries. Rauch’s mixture of the subconscious and social documentary recalls the late work of Goya, whose Desastres and Pinturas negras series engage the ravages of war in journalistic and supernatural forms. Rauch does not employ Goya’s level of horror or excoriation, but their paintings reveal an equivalent truth. The madness of their inventions is less extraordinary than the madness of the histories they confront. WM
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Adrian Coleman is a painter and architect living in New York. His work has appeared, among other places, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013.