‘...the half-waking moment, in which matter adrift gets caught up in my filter chambers and is organized into new arrangements, is the essence of my painterly work’
On a strange, strip-lit factory floor, two men are at work on what looks like a model village; one stands amid the miniature scenery wielding a hoe, a tiny tree toppled at his feet, while the other, dressed in a suit, readies himself to plant another. They are observed by a severe-looking woman with a clipboard, and a distant overseer who gazes, Mao-like, from a raised, curtained platform. Painted on paper in graphic red and off-white with occasional flashes of muted green, this intriguing tableau displays the influence of comic strips and Soviet propaganda that pervades Neo Rauch’s work. The meaningless letters ‘T E S’ appear in speech-bubble discs of signage affixed to the factory wall, offering titular explication only to thwart it. Who are these workers, and what is their world-building industry? What is the Eignungstest alluded to in the title? At once impenetrable and open, the work’s symbols are baffling but endlessly suggestive, hovering with the promise of a hidden oneiric logic. Having emerged from East German state control in the nineties, Rauch’s practice mingles the abiding echoes of Socialist Realism with disparate other elements to dizzying effect: Eignungstest is an acute distillation of his influences into a compelling and enigmatic scene.
Rauch’s remarkable oeuvre takes cues from Socialist Realist propaganda, advertising, Surrealism and the divisions of German history, combining these forces in disorienting mode. Perplexing as they are, his compositions – painted directly without any preparatory sketches or underdrawing – are anchored by an uncanny organisational practice that Rauch applies to the free-flowing world of dreams: he claims that ‘[t]he half-waking moment, in which matter adrift gets caught up in my filter chambers and is organized into new arrangements, is the essence of my painterly work’ (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen. Paintings 1993-2006, exh. cat. Wolfsburg, 2006, p. 174). These ‘arrangements’ have a captivating overall effect without yielding to attempts to decode their individual elements, which are governed by pictorial rather than narrative relationships. Trying to decipher Eignungstest leads to an exegetic impasse: the figures themselves, with stiff, mute expressions, enact the taciturn quality of the work itself.
Despite its tantalising irresolution, Eignungstest traffics in recognisable artistic idioms informed by Rauch’s unique perspective on recent German history: this trance-like precinct is composed from a subconscious wellspring of the iconic and symbolic, the imaginative lifeblood of his painting. Rauch’s skill in figuration can be traced to his formal artistic training in Leipzig’s Art Academy, which emphasised traditional technical skills while abstract and conceptual art were in their ascendance in the Capitalist West. The miniature landscape in Eignungstest gestures towards this clash. Its densely realised trees echo the lineage of 19th century Romanticism in Germany as well as the woodcut tradition so often seized upon by Sigmar Polke in his own riotous layerings of style; such lush naturalism stands in contrast to the eerily blank small buildings ranked in rows amid the trees, and the planar factory environment indicated as the setting. The work’s hard-edged graphic quality is heightened by the monochrome palette, its red sharply evocative of Communist iconography and enhancing a totalitarian overtone of construction, manufacture and artifice. As in Georg Baselitz’s Hero paintings, the figures subvert the Teutonic idealism of the GDR’s Socialist Realist propaganda: strong, orderly and utilitarian, they are engaged in industrious but entirely oblique physical labour. The forceful composition and clear message of a propagandist work is muted by Rauch’s merciless syncretic ambiguity. In all this uncertainty, even unease, lies the rich pleasure of his work. ‘You have to imagine,’ Rauch has said, ‘that the process of my painting is like a game of chess which I play against myself’ (N. Rauch in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Neo Rauch, Cologne 2012, p.262). His translation of sub- or unconscious motifs into an enchanted visual arena follows rules to which we are not made witness, yet for all its blazing peculiarity Eignungstest feels somehow to make sense, infusing a liminal space with the enthralling power of image and imagination.