Secrets and Art: Neo Rauch’s Narrative Enigmas
by Melissa Stern on Dec 2, 2011 • 10:22 am
I have long been fascinated by the work of the German artist Neo Rauch. From his strange, strained color palette to the scenes of modern dislocation that spill forth from his mind, he is consistently one of the most interesting contemporary painters in Europe or the U.S. His current show at David Zwirner Gallery shows Rauch painting some of his best work in years, exploring themes of both personal and political dissonance.
The exhibition, aptly entitled Sanitarium (Heilstatten in German), is a hallucinatory tour through Rauch’s universe. Enigmatic figures emerge from architectural landscapes that are at once improbable and evocative of a mythological German past. Bits and pieces of narrative taunt the viewer to decode the paintings, only to be thwarted by twists and turns of visual plot that lead anywhere and nowhere. Neo Rauch, born and raised in the former East Germany, has always combined a sense of the social realist style of Soviet art matched by a Western psychological sense of urgency.
This is not easy work to read. Rauch’s work never has been—and that is part of its appeal. We desperately want to know what he is trying to say; that is inherent in the appeal of narrative art. What, precisely, is the story? But time and time again, Rauch’s paintings refuse to give it up their secrets.
This recent work employs a color palette that is typical of Rauch but pushed in new, more extreme directions. The colors are acid drenched, worn out and semi-industrial. The essence of the faded “glory” of East Germany is contained in these colors. The difference between this and much of Rauch’s previous work is the use of recurring hits of a toxic green and a brilliant purple. This refreshed and striking use of color is perhaps the unifying element of this show. The imagery—birds of prey, men digging holes, a fall from grace—are not new to Rauch’s world. The inhabitants of this world are forever busy, yet the goal for which they labor is always elusive. These narratives are mystery stories that the viewer never solves. I find these endless mysteries intoxicating. Neo Rauch provides all the clues, but it is the viewer who completes the story.
Through Dec. 17, David Zwirner Gallery, 525 W. 19th St., www.davidzwirner.com.