Neo Rauch is a master of the subjunctive mood. In his paintings, he explores states of possibility, contingency and irreality with great energy and inventiveness. His canvases since the ’90s (this was his fifth solo show at Zwirner) frequently depict people working, playing or performing rituals with semaphorelike gestures. In Fundgrube (all works 2011), the figures are composed in a line across the nearly 10-by-17-foot image, like words in a sentence set free of clear semantics. Rauch’s glyph-people appear constrained, though, by their role as cryptic signifiers as well as by the disciplined society they inhabit. They seem to be members of fraternities or guilds that prescribe specialized tasks. Their respective social statuses and eras (past and present coexist here) are indicated by dress.
Rauch’s skillful draftsmanship renders all the parts of his pictures plausible; faces, trees, chairs and tables obey enough of the laws of nature to be convincing. Architecture provides the setting and menacing weather the mood for costumed men and women digging up objects, examining documents, or caring for animals or fellow humans. A man with a large can bends over to pour something into a bowl for a man-faced dwarf-rhinoceros in Türme. Generalized buildings (places of worship or civic administration) rise portentously into the sky behind the busy protagonists to suggest that their actions are more than routine pet maintenance or animal husbandry.
The exhibition also included one over-life-size bronze sculpture of a woman holding a walking stick and turning, with closed eyes, toward an owl perched on her raised arm. Three human heads emerge from her chest. The work, titled Falkner, lacks the boldness and economy of the paintings but aspires to the same inscrutable gravitas. (I urge him to make sculptures like the one being dug up in Fundgrube.)
The authority and grandeur of Rauch’s images have prompted critics to treat them as arcane allegories of abstractions like History and Culture, with a special emphasis on the former East Germany, where he grew up, and the Cold War. Architectural ruins coexist with more up-to-date subjects such as miniskirts and amusement park rides. Rauch’s paintings appear to combine various quotations or citations of specific sources; in interviews, however, he says they are inspired by the structure of dreams. They speak in a language of sanctioned collective sentiment, but audaciously scramble public and private to create an impression of historic forces being channeled through competent hands.
The title of this exhibition (and also one of the paintings) was “Heilstätten,” after a district in Beelitz, Germany, that houses a sanatorium complex built in the 19th century. (The young Hitler spent time there.) It is now mostly abandoned, and only a small part still functions as a hospital. Heilstätten is a fitting metaphor for Rauch’s position as a contemporary painter haunted by anachronisms, atavisms and craft labor. As W.G. Sebald writes, “And so they are returning to us, the dead.”
Photo: Neo Rauch: Fundgrube, 2011, oil on canvas, 2 panels, approx. 10 by 16½ feet overall; at David Zwirner.