Magic Show

Neo Rauch at the Met: para

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 22–October 14, 2007, and the Max Ernst Museum, Brühl, October 28, 2007–March 30, 2008.

Neo Rauch: para

catalog of the exhibition by Gary Tinterow and Werner Spies
Cologne: DuMont, 115 pp., $35.00

The dreamlike paintings of the German artist Neo Rauch are as mystifying and enigmatic as those of any artist at work today, although his figurative scenes, carnivalesque in their rich, surprising colors and tricky shifts from the real to the fantastic, are also among the likeliest to grab the attention of twelve-year-olds. In pictures marked by a naturalist’s precision about light, decor, and weather conditions, and that might be set in a factory office, on a farm at night, by the side of a cliff, or in many places at once, vaguely somnambulistic men (and rarely more than one or two women) can be seen conferring about a document, say, or playing cards, or trudging about in one heavy-going endeavor or another. They might even be caught up in violent incidents, like upheavals in the earth or street demonstrations with flags set on fire—events that occur in a number of the fourteen pictures in a show the artist is currently having at the Metropolitan Museum of work made this year.

The story line, however, is never fully the point with the forty-seven-year-old Rauch, a native of Leipzig, in the former East Germany, where he still lives. With their often slumpy and weighty bodily presence making them seem like persons from some earlier time, his figures and their doings are less our chief focus than aspects of paintings that are made up of freakishly strange, ingenious, and sensuous and opulent elements virtually everywhere we look. These might include startling shifts in human scale in the same picture, giant toadstools with openings that reveal whole rooms inside, or a forest treated as an expanse of flat patterning, like a vast doily in spring green or autumnal orange. Next to this lacy, ethereal passage, the roof or side of a building might be painted with a slablike, emphatic juiciness, while in many different paintings we encounter a range of gleaming, phallic entities that suggest oil paint squirted directly from the tube—squirts that, like the worms in Dune, can get ominously big and threatening. There are oddities, too, that are plain amusing, as when, for example, Rauch’s characters, stalwartly dealing with one issue or another, wear red Converse sneakers.

Strongly reminiscent of political posters of burly workers from a bygone era, Rauch’s paintings bring to mind as well the anything-goes thinking of Surrealism and of science fiction. Viewers might spot even deeper similarities with the look and spirit of classic comic strips (of which the painter is known to be a fan) such as Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin and especially Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. It is in McCay’s strips, which appeared weekly in American papers in the early years of the twentieth century, where, as with Rauch, shapes and objects—car tires, say—can have a headstrong life of their own and where space itself is like an ever-changing liquid substance.

In their puzzling and theatrical nature, Rauch’s pictures have rightly been compared with those by Bacon, Balthus, and de Chirico. And not…

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