Neo Rauch

EVERYWHERE IN NEO RAUCH'S paintings you see people at work—building, calculating, measuring, and producing—yet the machine has broken down. Mechanical fragments are strewn about. In the large-scale Lehre (Doctrine), 1999, a paunchy wrestler snoozes on the floor. His rather worldly dreams materialize on the wall behind him in the form of a monochromatic image. An official-looking figure is pointing at the black rectangle with a white stick, perhaps trying to explain some kind of statistical development to his female assistant. But the table is illegible, and the principles on which the pedagogy is based seem hollow. In fact, the bureaucrat himself is hollow: Through an opening in his brown suit one catches a glimpse of his mechanical guts. A similar chasm in the wall opens onto a blue void. Things have gone to pieces, and all that remains of the tenets that held everything together is a skinny balloon containing the word “Lehre” that shoots out from the wrestler's mouth.

Given the fact that Rauch was born and educated in the former East German city of Leipzig, where he still lives, one might conjecture that the “doctrine” has something to do with the political principles of the society in which he grew up, a society that fell apart around the time his career began. The relation between art and societal conditions shouldn't be oversimplified, but in Rauch's case the imagery so clearly relates to East German graphic design, socialist-style architecture, and painterly realism that it is impossible to deny the strong interest here in the link between aesthetics and politics. So what do these large paintings have to say about the artist's political past and the present? When what Boris Groys has called the “total art work of Stalin” comes apart, all that remains are fragments of a political body that no longer moves in a clear direction—a fact that may be more obvious to outsiders than to those who inhabit Rauch's mechanized landscapes. Although nothing makes much sense, most of the figures in these images seem to carry on as if it's business as usual. Often, as in Fang, 1998, their various doings are mysterious. What kind of operation are these three workers involved in? One is pointing heroically toward an industrial complex, the second is carrying an old-fashioned device of some sort, and the third is inspecting organic-looking objects lined up on a table. Animals or tools?

A certain cold-war atmosphere—spies, pilots, secret missions—give many of the paintings a dated dramatic quality. I suspect it appeals to Western viewers for the same reason they flock to bars in Berlin that haven't changed their furniture since the days of Erich Honecker. But more than the highbrow nostalgia, a strong sense of the absurd prevails. In Randgebiet (Marginal area), 2000, nothing is normal: A vacuum cleaner hovers in the air, a middle-aged couple walks an enormous dog with a human face. Above the group a helicopter carries a sign reading “Randgebiet.” Whatever this marginal area is—and it no doubt has something to do with the ideologically and financially emptied-out zone of the former East—it must be important to Rauch, since he has named the entire show, his largest to date, after the painting. There is something about this work, and many others in the exhibition, that reminds me of Kafka's world of bureaucrats, strange machines, and metamorphosing animals. There are women in Rauch's paintings, but just like the men they play specific roles: engineer, assistant, or secretary in an industrial system based on some form of production that seems overwhelmingly “male.” They're all part of the same encompassing bachelor machine. It is with respect to the very modernity of the system that the signs making up this world seem dated.

Rauch hmself seems to have no problems with production. The show contains a few works from the early '90s that dabble in ominous, even occultlike elements, such as the large circular works on paper Saum (Seam) and Plazenta (Placenta), both 1993. Most of the paintings on view, though, are of recent vintage, and the output is quite phenomenal. In this and other respects, Rauch is clearly closest to Polke among his German predecessors, though the bizarre, dreamlike qualities in his work maintain a difficult-to-pin-down specificity. Nor is it as all over the place: Indeed, Rauch has already constructed a signature yet inscrutable cosmos filled with recurring wrestling men, dogs with human faces, and various architectural and industrial details. This is a weirdly concrete dream of production, athletic strength, and socialist modernity dreamed in a time and a place that no longer exists. In Sturmnacht (Stormy night), 2000, a young athlete is resting in an enormous bed, and hunters appear in his wild and heroic dreams. In Scala, 2000, it may be the future that makes itself visible in the form of two young boys who could have escaped from a painting by Balthus. A middle-aged socialist couple look out of a socialist building. The monstrous boys with bricks in their hands are building a stairway to heaven.

“Randgebiet” travels to the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Mar. 16–May 20, and the Kunsthalle Zürich, June 9–Aug. 5.

Daniel Birnbaum is the director of the Städelschule in Frankfurt and a contributing editor of Artforum.