'In SUB (...) a man from the underground seems (...) to be readying for a 'liberation strike' with an ice pick in a setting of unstable hominess, where a television-fireplace provides only virtual warmth. The man, identified as 'SUB', turns up again in a drawing from 2009 as an inhabitant of a reed fen. His terrain is the transitional zone between water and land that in Rauch's language is equivalent to a passage between the unconscious and the conscious. Meanwhile, outside the SUB pavilion, a search commando is on the move, and this attracts the attention of the fur-vest man, who becomes a regular in Rauchs staffage... Rauch gives caricature-like features to his painting-milieu proxies as if he were admitting that the critics were right: The small head stands for poorly-developed intellectualism, the axe for an insufficient ability to intellectually dissect, or rather analyse, and the heavy footwear represents a restrained freedom of movement'
(H.-W. Schmidt, 'I dont fit in your system, but you fit in mine', Neo Rauch: Paintings, exh. cat., Leipzig & Munich 2010, pp. 11-12).
Executed in 2000, the monumental SUB is one of Neo Rauch's most personal poetic visions. As has famously been documented, Rauch has been the leader of a groundbreaking group of artists, who emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall with a new painterly vocabulary which amalgamated their Communist training in the East with their exposure to the culture of Capitalism. SUB would appear to depict the artist himself contained in an internalised space populated by just two people, being watched from the outside by guards. Kneeling on a chair, he stares into a glass cage containing a faceless avatar, he is clutching an axe ready to break in. With the title SUB which is constructed across the centre of the composition, this would appear to be hinting at some kind of subconscious existence. Emerging from a warm hearth in the centre of the composition, a cloud of red smoke gathers, reflected in an upstanding mirror. The mirror stands on the St. Andrew's Cross-like stand at the centre. This feature has appeared in several of Rauch's paintings, a diagonal crucifix that sometimes clearly serves as a sign for a levelcrossing that perhaps recalls the tragic death of Rauch's own parents in a rail accident, adding a peculiarly tragic tone to SUB. In addition, the presence of some kind of watery substance above the glass ceiling implies that this shed like room could also be subterranean. The careful juxtapositions of inside and outside, ego and alter ego here would appear to represent a strong message about the fear of a new world, or indeed the fear of leaving the old. In other works by Rauch, such as Malerei ('Painting'), the figure of the avatar, dressed here in a bold yellow suit, has been seen clutching a large paint brush, representing the painterly expectations that are weighing on the artist's shoulders. This, then, is an explicit incarnation of painting; yet he is contained, a technological captive kept on the other side of the glass. The artist himself, with SUB emblazoned on his top as some form of corporate logo is transfixed; holding his axe, he looks like he is about to break the glass, to gain access to his avatar, perhaps, or to liberate painting.
Rauch has said that his paintings are the continuation of a dream with other means, and certainly SUB is filled with suggestion, with an oneiric atmosphere that speaks of the interplay between the conscious and the subconscious. As is the case in some of the greatest of Rauch's pictures, SUB features various characters who appear to represent different forms of activity that serve as parallels for an artistic undertaking. The axes that two of the figures hold and the detectors that the soldiers outdoors are wielding serve as metaphors for some form of artistic search and practice. Dominating the composition is the figure in the foreground, a substitute and portrayal of Rauch himself, kneeling rapt before the glass-encased figure in a suit. There is a stillness, a timelessness in SUB that invokes the spirit of the Old Masters and implies that the issues at play here are perennial concerns. Crucially, there is also a rare sense of containment: many of Rauch's scenes are situated outdoors, whereas here we are in an interior, an internalised space that is made all the more claustrophobic because of kidney-like forms floating in the rafters which echo Claude Monet's Nymphéas and imply that this scene is taking place in some submarine universe.
In the background is a wild man with a fur vest and a distinctly undersized head, who appears painfully preoccupied by the search commando outside, with two soldiers wielding detectors. This wild man recalls the Hero paintings of another German painter originally from the East, like Rauch: Georg Baselitz. This full-length figure reappeared as the main focus of the giant painting Fell, now in the collection of the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig, and is rooted very much in Rauch's own experience. In SUB this new figure appeared, the wild man, the artist-painterlumberjack. In short, the anachronism. Here, and in Fell, the painter is presented as a faintly ridiculous character, or even caricature, seen as though through the critics' eyes as a pioneer of very little brain. It was against these prejudices that Rauch and the increasing ranks of the New Leipzig School were struggling, with the turning point coming three years before SUB was painted, when he won the art prize awarded by the Leipziger Volkszeiting, the local paper.
Within the universe of SUB, that struggle to grant painting validity and authority appears to continue. The wild man appears hunted by the soldiers outside. At the same time, they recall the metal-detecting man in Sucher of 1997, considered a self-portrait, an allegory of the artistic quest. In both that work and this, Rauch, who himself did his national service, has tapped into the iconography of the Cold War, of the old order. He has used the surveillance society of the DDR in order to capture all the more pointedly that atmosphere of painting in crisis, painting against the odds, painting as resistance. This, as implied by the use of the ambiguous prefix SUB as the title, is a glimpse of the underground.
In SUB, that idea of observing the painting as art, not narrative, is crucial: the world that these figures inhabit is itself painted, and painted with acute self-awareness, using a variety of techniques. The features of the various characters have been captured with a portraitist's accuracy, yet elsewhere the tables, objects that we consider solid, have been rendered with sinewy, organic lines which are emphatically brushstrokes. The plants in the centre appear like bursts of textured abstraction while the geometric regularity of the bricks has a faint resonance of Minimalism; the word SUB part-emblazoned across that surface recalls murals, graffiti and even the Berlin Wall. Above this scene, floating in the conservatory-like architecture of the building, are kidney-shaped forms that elude identification, hovering between Monet's water lilies and painter's palettes. The varied thickness of the oil paint on the surface emphasises the gestural application, yet all this has been painted in a deliberately limited palette dominated by green, yellow and blue, giving the impression of an Agitprop poster printed with a missing colour plate, heightening our awareness that it is representation itself that is in question here.
'I still have the ongoing confrontation with the opponent in me who in some paintings emergest like an allegory. I constantly have to suppress the hesitant one, the pubescent one, the conservative one, and the virtuoso in me, or at least to attempt to balance out the antagonists appropriately. The allegorical qualities of these circumstances automatically head straight for the canvas' (N. Rauch, quoted in A.M. Gingeras, 'Neo Rauch: Correspondence with Alison M. Gingeras, 'Dear Painter, Paint Me..., Painting the Figure since Late Picabia, exh. cat., Paris 2002, p. 100).