Neo Rauch 2011

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Neo Rauch 2011

Postby CAP » Fri Dec 09, 2011 4:55 am

Heilstätten– David Zwirner, New York, Nov 4 – Dec 17 2011.

The show continues the artist’s trend to darker pictures, more restrained colour and more integrated spaces, dominated by male figures now often in 18th or 19th century costume, while females remain essentially in modern dress. All are absorbed in civic celebrations of obscure origin or leisure. The themes of bizarre animal mutation (Die Turme 2011 -The Towers) and futuristic technology (Rota 2011) linger, but for the most part industrial and institutional settings have given way to suburban gardens and grand traditional architecture. Significantly, the show takes its title from the interlocking scenes of Heilstatten 2011 – Sanatorium - underlining a sense of retreat, exhaustion. Activities are less about manual labour and competition now than compliance and participation. The many models and plans that once guided and mocked settings, along with corporate livery and logos, have dwindled to just the artist’s easel or the traditional play of pictures within pictures (Das Kreisen 2011 - Circle). In this sense, the work feels more like a version of Surrealism, rather than the standard descriptions of a post modern hybrid of Pop, Socialist Realism and Surrealism, that have greeted the work since the end of the last century. Undeniably, there has been a narrowing of interest, a condensing of means that leaves the work more literal, less linear or stylised, more forthright and comfortable.

The problem is really that form has been sacrificed for content. Where the paintings maintained reference to a graphic style (and to some extent Pop Art) this allowed painterly treatment to distance itself from both picture and subject, in a way that gave them a distinctive expressive charge, a brusque indifference, possibly contempt. That fades as works gradually introduce more colour and tone, less prominent outline, become more unified and literal. The work now asserts a faith, if only in the powers of illustration. The reference is no longer to a graphics source, not even science fiction illustration, properly, but rather to painting’s own stock resources for figuration. This is why the work begins to look more like late Surrealism rather than a richer, more compelling mix. Painterly treatment is reduced to just sketchy background details or skies and the result is banal, possibly kitsch, as some critics quickly note. The paintings still incorporate graphics elements, like the silly cartoon hands to Der Vater (2007) and captions as in Parable (2008), or the graphics of Unter Feuer (2010). Drawing still engineers deft quirks in perspective and scale, but they are no more than tics or trompe now and only beg the stylisation and objects that would contest them.

To compensate, the work becomes crowded, crammed with incident as roles proliferate, occasions dilate and form turns formulaic. But busier is not always better. The artist acknowledges the problem in an interview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue in 2007, where he expressed confidence in simply working through the phase, but subsequent work suggests the problem may be more difficult to remedy. Revo (2010) and Kalimuna (2010) continue to smooth things out, reprise established themes with a larger cast but finally teeter on self-parody. In Ware (2011), from the current show, one senses the artist struggling for a way to break free of the big lumbering picture, to sustain the momentum of the weird bodily proportions, with the lamp and shadow on the right given especially loose treatment, verging on greater stylisation, but not quite getting there. It just looks rushed or bored and not in a good way. Bolder brushwork might succeed, would at least give the stylisation more vibrancy, but the artist perhaps resists such Expressionism as too much of a heritage or not enough. Then again, the imposing scale may make such vigorous facture impractical. Certainly, the artist’s small sketches (Dörfler 2009, Die Warte 2011) show a bolder grasp of drawing, a more adventurous use of facture. It may be that the artist’s commitment to grand history painting, steering precariously between Werner Tübke and Jörg Immendorff, finally cannot allow such formal dexterity and that while granting an impressive range of roles and themes, must then forfeit means with which to say anything interesting about them.

With the dissipation of abstraction and the growing suspicion of realism (particularly in the digital age) the territory in between – degrees or levels of stylisation, their routes to the literal and metaphorical, expressive and descriptive, take on renewed interest. This unquestionably is the hot area for pictures, in art and life. For proponents of digital technology, painting can at best follow these developments at one remove, as crude manual asides. But it is the additional resources of painting that derive from a unique surface and set of pigment applications that remain the true laboratory for pictorial meaning. It is in the sole instance that crucial differences to means and ends are firstly discerned and new styles built accordingly. Art revises and recycles these and painting remains the instrument of choice. Prints, digital and otherwise, still or animated, inherit such styles; have remarkable standards of duplication in many cases, but lack that additional resource, that final flexibility, by necessity. This is the reason painting continues to contribute to pictures. This is the reason one follows developments such as the work of Neo Rauch closely and critically.

A longer version of this review appears @ CAP’S CRITS.
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