Neo Rauch at David Zwirner

A painter, with tousled hair and a distant gaze, lies upon a rocky ground. He’s dressed in vaguely 19th-century garb and holds a long brush daubed with yellow. A slack noose placed around his neck is tied to an easel. The canvas on it is bright white.

In the background, a ladder leans upright with no discernible support. A gallows is partially draped with black cloth. Further back a cow runs off a cliff. The sky is dusty gray. Blanketing all of it is the musty patina of academic painting come and gone.

Directly on the surface of Neo Rauch’s Parabel (2008), one of eleven recent canvases at David Zwirner Gallery, are the first five letters of the title trailing off the canvas’ bottom right-hand corner. They’re painted with clarity and a scale typical of sandwich boards. It’s as if a sign painter had been hired to finish the image and did so with an overly literal flourish.

Except nothing is ever finished or resolved in Mr. Rauch’s dour tableaux. Mr. Rauch’s dreamscapes glance off the 20th century, stumble into the 19th and encompass fairy tales, myth and untenable sociopolitical conditions. It’s worth noting that Mr. Rauch came of age in East Germany.

Mr. Rauch is an internationally known painter, but, please, don’t call him an art star. Though he’s exhibited around the world and his paintings command intimidating prices, Mr. Rauch lies relatively low. His paintings, with their bizarre panoply of characters and pessimistic tidings, abjure the cult of personality. Celebrity doesn’t stick to them.

The paintings are packed with figures dutifully engaged in rote activities—a kind of bureaucratic ritualism. Yellow flags are manufactured within an oppressive and cavernous room. A stately burgher undergoes what is either torture or religious confirmation. A blankly staring hero fights off a monster from an unconcerned woman. Obligations are fulfilled with drab purpose.

Mr. Rauch’s art is dense with symbolism and indifferent to interpretation—narrative non sequitur is his specialty. The work is unimaginable without the advent of collage, but Mr. Rauch puts its fracturing in the service of theater and mood. Discrete vignettes occupy the same setting, if just barely. Foreboding absurdism, if not outright nightmare, takes precedence.

Die Aufnahme (2008) is peculiarly ramshackle. A huge woman clad in a harsh orange uniform grapples with two men, one of whom is either entrapped in or melting into a tarry substance. A woman sits spread-legged behind an accordion basket. A young traveler confers with three scientists. A pyre begins to burn. A heap of dung lies nearby. A white building, rendered in zooming perspective, towers above.

Die Aufnahme is rebus-like. Surely, it must add up to something—but it’s impossible to say what. To the extent that it means anything, the work scuffles away from linearity and embraces, instead, a chronological and moral Balkanization. Stylistically, the paintings feel pre-modern; thematically, they’re contemporary.

Mr. Rauch the painter posits Manet as channeled through and coarsened by Soviet socialist realism. Stylistically, there’s nothing new about them—his palette buys into the cliché that Old Master paintings are brown or, at least, grayed down, but he doesn’t quite redeem it. Only nominally a colorist, he doesn’t quite know how to handle color’s evocative power. Silvery murk makes some sense in shaping the images, but it also makes for a uniformity that deadens Mr. Rauch’s strange detachment.

Perhaps that’s why he’s adopted pictorial tics that run counter to rather traditional compositions. Jasper Johns would seem to be an influence in how the paintings are interrupted by flattened pictorial tropes. Mr. Johns is most present in the abrupt and diagonal rift of “paper” seemingly taped upon Enfaltung (2008). A cadre of mushrooms, slack relatives of those inFantasia, dance and float at the bottom of Die Stickerin (2008).

Mr. Rauch’s paintings are haunted by the apocalyptic. Staged jumbles of circumstance, they have no center—images emerge, gain physicality and all but collapse in on themselves. Momentum and continuity are, Mr. Rauch suggests, circuitous and, more likely, a fiction. Nothing holds, least of all the steady gait of time. His conclusions are something to puzzle over—and worry about.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 20, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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