‘You have to imagine that the process of my painting is like a game of chess which I play against myself’ – N. Rauch
‘My interest in the etymological roots of even the most banal expression leads me to sediments of meaning that occasionally send unexpected impetus to painterly intentions. Sometimes, however, a word is capable of triggering a picture! It can happen that a word develops an uncanny atmospheric vortex in the direction of a self-creating picture; I only have to help things fall into place’ – N. Rauch
One of Neo Rauch’s most personal, introspective and allegorical works, Sub (2000) appeared in the artist’s first exhibition outside East Germany at Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum in 2002. Rauch considers the nature of his painterly practice in what is effectively a double self-portrait: the work is an image of his internal state, within which he projects his own self-image as hesitant painter. A fascinating air of expectation pervades, with a cast of symbolic actors typical of Rauch’s oeuvre suspended in mysterious tension. Sub’s vibrant interior invites unusually intimate access to Rauch’s creative process, which is haunted by the history of his native East Germany. The likeness of the artist himself holds a pickaxe, seemingly poised to free a radiation suit contained within a vitrine; in the far corner, a fur-vested axeman with an undersized head regards a uniformed Stasi search party outside the window. The figure held behind glass like a museum specimen has previously appeared in Malerei (1999) as an avatar for the practice of painting. The giant is another recurring character, performing in the works Fell and Teer (both 2000) as a proxy for small-minded critical apprehension of Rauch’s work. Sub’s gathering of these emblematic characters conveys the anxiety and exposure inherent in the act of painting in a surreal and richly playful composition, uniquely informed by past life under a surveillance state and displaying the triumph of one of contemporary painting’s richest imaginations.
Before transferring ideas to canvas, Rauch finds his source material in the world of dreams; in this metaphorical work, the word ‘SUB’ emblazoned on the wall and across the artist’s jacket explicitly foregrounds that which is subterranean or subconscious. Rauch has explained the importance of his titles: ‘my interest in the etymological roots of even the most banal expression leads me to sediments of meaning that occasionally send unexpected impetus to painterly intentions. Sometimes, however, a word is capable of triggering a picture! It can happen that a word develops an uncanny atmospheric vortex in the direction of a self-creating picture; I only have to help things fall into place’ (N. Rauch, quoted in W. Büscher, ‘New Songs!’ in M. Brüderlin et al., Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen. Paintings 1993-2006, exh. cat. Wolfsburg, 2006, p.70). The artist’s language of ‘roots’ and ‘sediments’ is revealing: like the Surrealists, Rauch is guided by what is beneath, intuitive, subliminal. It is important too that his self-portrait wields a pickaxe, a tool for mining or excavation, an activity that Rauch’s figures often undertake. As if searching for buried treasure, they emphasise the same enigmatic layering of meanings explored here. Indeed, a Futurist lattice of roof surmounts the scene below; the picture plane in this zone is run through with holes, hinting at the permeability of Rauch’s uneasy domestic sanctum, and the possibility of further strata beneath.
A key influence in Rauch’s oeuvre is the idealised imagery of Socialist Realist art; in Sub he apes and powerfully subverts this visual language. The figure of painting resembles the Hazmat suits used to protect from radiation poisoning, and lies dormant behind glass to be broken in emergency. Rauch’s East Germany was part of the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, and memories of the nuclear standoff no doubt inform his creative inventory. The graffitied wall perhaps alludes to the Berlin Wall itself, while in the background is something like a television screen, which reflects the colourful flow of post-unification images and influences – from American Pop to Minimalism – that pervade Rauch’s practice.
The word Sub also calls to mind that which is subversive or underground, inflecting Rauch’s scene with a further element of rebellion and alienation in its repressive historical context. The Stasi outside form a menacing presence, threatening intrusion and paranoia: the futuristic body of painting seems ready to come out fighting, an affirmation of Rauch’s vibrant creativity. The toxic surveillance culture of the GDR, still vividly remembered in Rauch’s hometown of Leipzig, saw neighbours, friends and family informing on one another; the Stasi also employed the psychological practice of Zersetzung – roughly ‘decomposition,’ ‘corrosion’ or ‘undermining’ – to silence political opponents. This Orwellian method of judicial terror intimidated and destabilised its victims by demolishing their private and professional lives with smear campaigns and character assassinations. Secret police would invade houses to subtly alter the contents by moving furniture or pictures or changing the time of alarms, causing victims to lose their grip on reality and, gradually, their minds. The men outside Sub’s window seem to pose a similar sort of psychological incursion: perhaps Rauch’s mental home is a safe haven, and painting a defence.
Amid all this uncertainty, and even in danger, lies the vivid appeal of Rauch’s work. As he himself has said, ‘if the result were not uncertain, one of my key motivations for painting would be gone. It’s the adventure, the desire for risky encounters’ (N. Rauch in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Neo Rauch, Cologne 2012, p.262). In Sub, Rauch presents a deeply personal assessment of the power and pitfalls of painting as a mode of expression, and offers a remarkable glimpse of his own history.