Neo Rauch’s recent show at Eigen + Art Leipzig (until 22nd Dec.) Der Zentrum did not provide many examples to its website, unfortunately. Perhaps one must wait for the next show at the David Zwirner Gallery (NY) for that. All the same it is an opportunity to review Rauch’s work at a crucial point, amid growing acclaim and disapproval.
The standard view finds his work essentially a restrained or oblique critique of communist East Germany. The drawing is linked to 50s illustration and cold war propaganda, severe geometric composition to soviet modernist collage and design, subdued colour is taken as an index of feeble East European printing standards under communism. The many confusions and follies pictured are seen to demonstrate the collapse of an unworkable ideology. The appeal of the work is then assumed to be firstly parochial and nostalgic, secondly, reassuring or self-congratulatory, embraced in the face of growing economic woes throughout Europe. Where the work is not dismissed outright, admirers are, implicitly. But this sells the work well short, advances equally dubious politics by so doing. (For a respectful version of this see Daniel Birnbaum, for a condescending one, see David Hudson).
In fact much else about the work undercuts such a simple-minded or lazy reading. The drawing is never just an allusion to dated illustration, contains as much eccentric distortion and caricature (even comic-strip speech bubbles) as regular modelling and proportion, sometimes displays over-painting or incompletion. Figures and settings are hardly restricted to period costume and technology; colours while conspicuously recurring (or harmonised) across costumes and setting, are as often primaries or secondaries as muted tertiaries. And Rauch’s play with perspectives, scale, proportions and fiction rarely if ever rely upon the collage layout of soviet graphics of the 20s and 30s, its typefaces or signage of the 50s or 60s. The work is not just or even necessarily about East Germany and communism, no more about history and politics than about the future and fiction, and increasingly not just about drawing and illustration, but a more complex and painterly use of depiction.
The undeniable sense of disruption, distrust and dystopia arises not over ideology, but the adequacy of pictures, as plans and instructions, for commercial or civic ends. Rauch’s work deals in the ways pictures design and model the world; fail and fall apart. So he cites common illustrational sources certainly; line drawings and basic (monochrome) printing techniques. These humble styles are among the most direct and obvious applications. He picks out architectural and engineering projects, (see Schicht) industrial and scientific ventures, and attendant roles and tasks for people, uniforms or costumes, tools and customs (see Kuhlraum). All bear the mark of conspicuous design, from colour codings and co-ordinations to scale and distances, proportions and perspectives, all are fitted together by the picture.
Indeed, production and cultivation here often blur the line between person and product – introduce bizarre biological and botanical hybrids, robotic and mutant giants or midgets (see Tabu and Pergola). Roles and models are confused or multiply, pictures struggle to keep track, to measure scale, proportion or distance. The fiction here demonstrates a limit to plans; serves as a lively metaphor for inherent corruption, the way plans finally press relations between parts (persons and products) and fail, even as pictures. Elsewhere, more literally, small scale 3D models, displays and games are prominently included, (see Eis and Quiz) sometimes artist’s easels signal similarly, (see Die Wahl and Pergola) driving home the disparities and divergence from plans, their immersion in the world they model, their absurd and remote reductions. More recently, work features theatrical enactments and performances that amplify a similar confusion for roles, costume and props (see Nexus). All underline the permeability of representation, the instability of reference.
Pictures and plans it seems, cannot do without ideals and fiction, much less separate them, never match the world very closely or long and so do not entirely work as pictures; or only picture a world that does not entirely work. This is the source of the abiding unease in Rauch’s work and the reason it has drawn such a strong response is surely because it perfectly captures the current mood of suspicion and disillusionment toward the media and advertising, international trade and government, throughout much of the world.
It is not just an issue of realism. Photography and other prints encounter the same problems when used for plans. Painting only states the problem on its starkest terms, since it is furtherest removed from mass usage, has recourse to more complex and obscure means, draws the problem out to profound and moving lengths. In this it is fair to say, as some critics have, that Rauch re-invents the grand style or history painting. The difference now is that the pictures do not settle for illustrating vital text and myth, instead trace fiction to types or plans and plans to the world, at least tentatively. Fiction here stretches as far as facts and vice versa. And the spectrum is matched in the blend of means, from the broad outlines and comic-strip voice bubbles of illustration and instruction to more nuanced versions of colour and tone, to their accidents of execution and re-workings, the facture and materials of painting. All find their place in Rauch’s style, and this breadth of project and elegance of scheme are his contribution to painting, his challenge to representation.
It is appropriate to also say something about German influence in the wider western art world at present, since this possibly animates some of the resistance to Rauch. The fact is, for all Germany’s economic and political problems, its aging population and so on; it remains a powerhouse for art. Rauch is only the latest in an impressive line of painters that includes Albert Oehlen, Gunther Forg, Martin Kippenberger, Anselm Keiffer, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. And while Rauch currently holds a lot of the attention, other emerging artists attracting interest beyond Germany include Franz Ackermann, Tilo Baumgärtel, Norbert Bisky, Thomas Eggerer, Tim Eitel, Torben Giehler, Eberhard Haverkost, Christian Hellmich, Thoralf Knobloch, Martin Kobe, Susanne Kühn, Stefan Kurten, Michael Majerus, Frank Nitsche, Ulf Puder, Daniel Richter, Christoph Ruckhäberle, Thomas Scheibitz, David Snell, and Matthias Weischer. While few as yet show Rauch’s ambition, they nonetheless present a formidable depth of talent. Nor are the achievements restricted to painting; lists of photographers, installation and performance artists could be added, would only reinforce the dominance.
This influence far exceeds that of other nations of Europe or the UK, is probably at least the equal of the U.S. now. Yet obviously Germany has nothing like the economic or political might of the U.S. and why it should exert such a disproportionate influence is puzzling. There are factors of training and opportunity of course, but beyond these there may be a more general attitude at work. Germany’s history of upheaval and rebuilding is perhaps reflected in their need and willingness to rethink and revise their culture, including art. Unlike the U.S., France or Italy, Germany has never been at the centre of western art, although always an eager participant. So it has less to defend, more to gain here from bold enterprise.
If the U.S. slows or dallies by comparison, is distracted by technical developments, it may be that success breeds a certain caution, even complacency. Past achievements may finally hinder further ones. Then again, Germany’s relentless questioning and experiment may rely too much on the foundations of others; remain an export to a centre it can only envy. It shapes as one of the key issues for a globalised culture.