‘If I can’t have the perspective of the man on the moon, then I at least have the glimpse out of the corner of my eye. Perception via the corner of the eye is actually, in its poetic substance, like a dream. Everyone has experienced it. You perceive something in your peripheral vision, turn towards it, and it is gone. I might add that I regularly check the signal quality of my paintings from this perspective’ —N. RAUCH
‘I am a storyteller; I need figuration to reach closer to the poetry of my dreams. Then I started to fish beings out of the veils of colour that had something vegetative, amoeboid about them’ —N. RAUCH
‘Painting has its strongest effect on me when it appears as an unpremeditated, spontaneous thing like an act of nature, and makes me realise the force of amazement and of sensual experience. I can only hope that, some way, with some of my works, I can communicate something to all those people who are open on that level’ —N. RAUCH
A vast panorama in blazing hues, Neo Rauch’s Kühlraum (Cold Store) (2002) was included in the artist’s winning exhibition for the 2002 Vincent van Gogh Biennial Award at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht – a pivotal moment in his ascendance to the global stage. Rauch presents a vision as arresting as it is enigmatic. A worker, uniformed in turquoise shirt, pink gloves and white cap and apron, unloads a yellow mandrake, embryonic in a cocoon of ice, from a vast freezer. Behind him, a second employee lays an unfrozen larger mandrake – complete with sprouting leaves for hair – on a gurney. These figures fill the picture’s right-hand foreground, and are backed by an incomplete wall of slender bricks glossed in green, off-white and magenta; above them hangs a fantastical ceiling of the same deep pink, its parabolic structures bristling with pale stalactites that cast an unearthly glow. To the left of this bizarre tableau, which resembles an unfinished stage set, three ranks of open-air supermarket shelves – empty save a single floret of broccoli – recede into the background, where a distant shopper regards an aisle full of produce. Closer to us, a woman dressed in grey stares blankly at her empty trolley. Strange yellow pylons soar into the flat blue sky above; a man in the centre is erecting another, plunging its foundation into a dark pool that has ruptured the supermarket floor. Echoing the jagged edges of this pond, in the image’s lower left is an abstract intrusion of flat greys and blacks, reinforcing the sense that we are witness to a mirage of painting under (de)construction. Behind each gleaming aisle of the eerie outdoor emporium we glimpse what look like volcanoes, smoking quietly into the sky. What is happening in Kühlraum? The work is dreamlike in its disjunctive, surreal imagery, tantalising in its sense of underlying meaning. A refusal to be decoded, however, is the key to Rauch’s paintings. ‘I see it as my responsibility,’ he has said, ‘to keep the well of inspirational flow in darkness and protect it from being dried out by the beam of analytical headlights’ (N. Rauch, quoted in S. Russ, ‘Neo Rauch,’ BOMB – Artists in Conversation, 12 December 2014).
Rauch gathers his source material from the deep subconscious currents of his dreams and the magical worldview of childhood memory, and arranges these elements according to pictorial, rather than narrative logic. As he has explained, ‘My basic artistic approach is that I let things permeate through me, without any hierarchical pre-selection. And from the material I filter out, I then construct a private, very personal mosaic. And if that works well, then patterns appear which point to things beyond what is usually ascribed to the things’ (N. Rauch, quoted in H. Liebs, ‘Nothing Embarrasses me Now,’ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 13 September 2006, p. 18). Reflecting this near-shamanic attitude, Rauch paints directly onto the canvas, without any preparatory studies or underdrawing; kaleidoscopic and seemingly unbridled, the resulting scenes are nonetheless anchored by a keen visual organisation that suspends their features in captivating, inscrutable tension. With bewitching poise, Rauch’s allusive dreamscapes seize figurative painting to deliver a unique thrill of the otherworldly.
In all its impenetrability, Rauch’s oeuvre does take cues from recognisable artistic sources. The traces of Socialist Realist propaganda, advertising, Surrealism and sci-fi comics can all be felt, if in disorienting and disjunctive guises. In Kühlraum, the history of the artist’s native East Germany (he grew up under the DDR in Leipzig, where he still lives today) sheds some light on proceedings. Could the partition between cool-room and supermarket be a hallucinogenic echo of the Berlin Wall? The empty shelves and distantly plentiful aisle in Kühlraum certainly evoke this division: poorly stocked shops were common under communist rule, while capitalist West Germany was seen as a bounty of consumer goods. In another nod to the Cold War era, the painting’s workers – engaged in the oblique tasks of building outlandish structures or defrosting magical man-plant hybrids – subvert the idealised Teutonic industry portrayed in East German propaganda. The air of secrecy, alienation and concealment is heightened by the volcanic potential in the background, hinting at explosive currents beneath the candy-coloured surface of what we see.
The artist cautions against undue focus on the Wall, however. ‘It was never true that the clash of the two ideologies or systems defined my work. My imagination and vision have always emerged from the mining shafts of my subconscious, and those run in a vertical, not horizontal direction’ (N. Rauch, quoted in S. Russ, ‘Neo Rauch,’ BOMB – Artists in Conversation, 12 December 2014). Indeed, Rauch’s fascination with mining, sediments and excavation can often be felt, as in the dark pool in Kühlraum. Its swampy depths confer a liminal quality that the artist values: ‘the blurry region between water and land, terra firma and bog, the conscious and the unconscious. It’s also the region where marsh gases rise and will o’ the wisps drift around … These regions have a certain attraction for me and, as a framework, it’s very suitable for trawling in the unconscious, in brackish water and bogs. Duckweed and frog spawn. Scum. Things rotting’ (N. Rauch, quoted in W. Büscher, ‘I have huge respect for drawing,’ in Neo Rauch: Works on Paper, Munich 2009, p. 100). The mandrakes – fairytale amalgams of vegetal and human form, said to scream upon their uprooting – are likewise a subterranean enigma, existing in an uncanny, hybrid state. Like so much in this work, the question of whether they are being prepared for consumption or freed from cryogenic storage is left hauntingly unclear. In all Kühlraum’s tensions, mystery and metamorphoses, all we can be sure of is the spectacular power of paint, and the magnetic visionary force of Rauch’s imagination.