"I love states of transition," German neo-figurative painter Neo Rauch
said during a recent walkthrough of his new exhibition, Heilstätten
(through December 17), at David Zwirner Gallery
. Pressed for a more definitive interpretation of his quizzical, fragmented, large-scale historical mashup paintings, he deflected. "For me a painting is like a plant, it needs to breathe and grow. I wouldn't ask a cactus, 'what's your message?'"
There are no cacti among the plants growing in the 12 paintings and one sculpture presented here (all from 2011), but there's definitely an organic process discernible in the work, one that relentlessly frustrates narrative continuity and develops through something like repeated growing and pruning. These paintings also feature somewhat looser brushstrokes than characterized Rauch's earlier work, suggesting a less controlled hand and more selective obsession over every figurative detail. But if certain quadrants of these canvases breathe more easily than his previous works—which at times feel deliberately claustrophobic with the weight of many disparate and charged images brought together—the compositions are still very tight, with every detail figuring into the impressive overall effect, however slippery its exact meaning may be. Both of the exhibition's two massive diptychs are marked by repeating forms and figures, but also feature radically truncated and unstable spaces.
Reading "Das Kreisen," for instance, from left to right viewers come across an artist's studio where a man in polo shirt and Converse sneakers crouches near a fallen angel; behind them a landscape painting dissolves through the studio walls to the windy fields beyond; to the right, a bearded woman fits a necklace onto a model while a man with purple hair passes carrying a massive wreath, trailed by a dog who's just shit brown paint onto a plate being held by a hand whose arm disappears behind a painting that faces the viewer, disturbing the image's continuity. In the painting-within-the-painting, a man and woman watch concerned as their apparent child—with tiny wings protruding from its back—reaches for the tip of some unseen beast's tail. Each of Rauch's paintings has a specific palette of bold colors that every figure wears in some combination: here it's turquoise, purple, magenta, orange and a pale shade of yellow. He works without preparatory drawings, which comes across in the improvisational and unpredictable character of his images. The other massive diptych, "Fundgrube," features greater symmetry thanks to recurring 45-degree angles formed by roof lines in both its panels and apparently contrasting groups of men and women cavorting around quasi-abstract, vaguely monstrous collapsed monochrome forms in the foregrounds of each half of the composition. These similarities are striking for an artist whose work is so fundamentally asymmetric.
Most interesting and uncharacteristic, though, is the figure of the female falconer Rauch chose to cast in bronze, which also appears in two of the paintings. She greets visitors in the large canvas "Aprilnacht," where she examines a large bird of prey propped on her knee while a nearby male co-falconer holds up an owl head. In the comic book panel-inspired painting that gives the exhibition its title—a German word for "healing places," several of which appear in said canvas—the female falconer appears as the centerpiece of a small fountain in the distance seen from the back. But nearby she stands about seven-and-a-half feet tall in "Die Jägerin," with a golden-hued bird perched on her arm, walking stick in hand and three male heads grafted onto her chest like trophies from some Amazonian hunt. This privileging of a specific figure is very unusual for Rauch, whose oeuvre is characterized by deliberate ambiguity about the relative importance of figures in his compositions—part of what makes his paintings so readily available to multiple readings and narrative combinations is that it's never clear which figure is most important or has the greatest agency.
But this is clearly the female falconer's show, and the choice of such a strong, phallic woman marks another departure for Rauch, whose fractured images are most frequently attributed to his remaining in East Germany from his birth in 1960, through communism and reunification, until today. Castration anxiety is certainly a recurring theme in his paintings, particularly in his deployment of military figures and artists, but it's often intimated by compromised male figures rather than a dominant female character. This new feminist theme highlights another potent entry point to Rauch's work, which continues to fascinate as he grows and prunes his glossary of images and iconographies.
(Images courtesy David Zwirner, New York and Eigen + Art, Berlin/Leipzig; Photos by the author)
New Neo Rauch Paintings (and a Sculpture!) at David Zwirner
The German neo-figurative painter's latest madcap historical mashup canvases still fascinate.
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