Neo Rauch’s Beleuchten (‘Illuminate’) (2000) presents a captivating, enigmatic scene. Two men are at work erecting a slender obelisk that bears some type of beacon at its head. A much larger pylon of the same design lies on the ground behind the workers; another emerges from an overgrown flowerbed in front of them, and one more is visible in the distance, next to a watchtower-like structure that overlooks two further buildings and a group of trees. Both upright obelisks stand on wheeled platforms. In the foreground, a small boy plays with a box, kneeling between the flowerbed and a patch of waste ground littered with an empty petrol can. Painted on paper in graphic red and off-white, this dreamlike tableau displays the influence of comic strips and Soviet propaganda that pervades Rauch’s work. With remarkable technique, he deliberately evokes the aesthetic of posters and cartoons by applying certain areas of paint – such as the flashes of yellow in the characters’ sweatshirts and the green tint of their hair – with a dry, textured surface that recreates the effect of cheap printing; the red palette is also sharply evocative of Communist iconography. Any clear message or narrative is bewilderingly absent, however. Despite the painting’s title and the lamplight at its centre, we are left in the dark. The beacon shines into a blank sky that has been thickly painted in cream over an ominous area of red, while other translucent zones reveal ghostly glimpses of overpainted scenery. The uneasy atmosphere of surveillance is heightened by these material layers of obscurity and part-revelation. Something seems hidden beneath every surface. As is typical of Rauch’s work, Beleuchten is filled with allusion and meaning but remains gleamingly impenetrable, operating like a lucid dream.
Rauch’s remarkable oeuvre takes cues from Socialist Realist imagery, advertising, Surrealism and the divisions of German history, combining these forces in disorienting mode. Perplexing as they are, his compositions are anchored by an uncanny organisational practice that Rauch applies to the free-flowing world of dreams. He paints with inimitable assurance, and likens his role to that of a medium, filtering these subliminal impulses into the oneiric apparitions of his work. ‘The half-waking moment,’ he says, ‘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. It is as if we have stumbled into the artist’s subconscious, and are made witness to the electric currents of inspiration, memory and imagination that churn through his psyche.
‘Inexplicable zones are necessary,’ says Rauch, ‘because otherwise the image will dry out, because it will become completely disinfected. I have to keep on deciding at which point in the process of making a painting I have to make that cut and put in fields of interference. That always happens when the feeling arises that the spelled-out parts have taken the upper hand’ (N. Rauch, quoted in H. Liebs, ‘Nothing Embarrasses me Now,’ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 13 September 2006, p. 18). His compositions thrive on cross-contamination, intrusion and mystery – to leave an image decodable would be to deprive it of its magic.
Despite its tantalising lack of resolution, Beleuchten traffics in recognisable artistic idioms informed by the artist’s unique perspective on recent German history. 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 capitalist West Germany. Beleuchten’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 layering of style (the work’s dotted textures also echo Polke’s Rasterbilder); such lush naturalism stands in contrast to the strange minimalist forms of the obelisks, as well as the hard, industrial edge of the petrol can and looming architecture.
Rauch’s figures, with their stiff, mute expressions, enact the taciturn mystery of the work itself. These workers subvert the Teutonic idealism of East Germany’s Socialist Realist propaganda: strong, orderly and utilitarian, they are engaged in industrious but oblique activity. Where the forceful and striking monochrome composition might lead us to expect the clear communication of a propagandist work, meaning is muted by Rauch’s merciless syncretic ambiguity. The image does not picture a specific message, but instead revels in our struggle to understand. In all this uncertainty lies the rich pleasure of Rauch’s work. Beleuchten refuses to illuminate – and so does the artist. ‘I see it as my responsibility,’ he says, ‘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).