‘I find it impossible to design a scene in which things and persons emotionally blend with each other; I attempt to break out of this as soon as developments in this direction become obvious’
‘The most important quality features in painting for me are peculiarity, suggestiveness and timelessness’
‘You have to imagine that the process of my painting is like a game of chess which I play against myself’
As if searching or waiting, three figures are poised in enigmatic tension; shaded forth in graphic red and off-white, they display the influence of comic strips and Soviet propaganda that pervades Neo Rauch’s work. The trio are surrounded by what appear to be the remnants of a strange, overgrown post-industrial landscape. Hovering above them are three speech bubbles, which promise narrative explication only to thwart it: instead of bold, declarative text we find monolithic silence, crackling with potential meaning. The work’s execution on paper heightens its monochrome flatness, the striking flash of green in the woman’s skirt adding a further layer of mystery. What are the strange, schematic urns at the characters’ feet? What are we to make of the two men’s futuristic metal-detector-like contraptions, standing in such contrast to the hints of German Romanticism in the trees of the background? Dating from the late 1990s, shortly before Rauch’s arrival upon the international stage, Stau is resonant with his distinctive dreamlike power. At once impenetrable and open, its 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: Stau 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. The title Stau, meaning ‘congestion’ or ‘stagnation,’ seems to make reference to this exegetic impasse: the figures themselves, eavesdropping with mute expressions on something unseen, enact something of the viewer’s own experience.
Despite its tantalising irresolution, Stau traffics in recognisable artistic idioms informed by Rauch’s unique perspective on recent German history: this trance-like zone of stasis 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. Stau’s landscape 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 minimalist forms of the speechless bubbles and stylised urns, as well as the hints of industry in the petrol can and concrete slab. This hard-edged graphic quality is heightened by the monochrome palette, its red sharply evocative of Communist iconography. As in Georg Baselitz’s Hero paintings, the three figures subvert the Teutonic idealism of the Socialist Realist propaganda of the GDR: strong, orderly and utilitarian, they are engaged in industrious but oblique activity. 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 Stau feels somehow to make sense, occupying a liminal space with the enthralling power of image and imagination.