The Garden and the Jungle

an Interview with Neo Rauch

Two things are immediately apparent when you look at the art of Neo Rauch: his technical skills are virtuosic and the paintings are consistently enigmatic. Visually, there is much to see. The paintings and large drawings are activity-laden; every character in his compositions is doing something, the kind of work that moves objects around but to no evident purpose and with no apparent outcome. Structures get built, costumes are put on, men and women pay rapt attention to what they are doing. But for the viewer nothing adds up to anything that could be declared a readable narrative. Der Stammbaum/Family Tree, 2017, is a large oil on paper drawing that was included in “Neo Rauch: Aus Dem Boden/ From the Floor” at The Drawing Center in New York from April 11 to July 28 of this year. The title seems to allude to a confusing ceremony in which a single tree is being planted by a man dressed in red clothes, as is a couple who are holding red containers that might contain water, or might be shopping bags. Or, as a way of extending the meaning of the eponymous title, they could be members of a genealogical family tree. The shadows their bodies project onto the ground are swirling, dwarfish shapes, like contorted puddles. The planting in which they are participants takes place in a public space dominated by an odd piece of sculpture that draws the attention of four darkly dressed figures. A fifth figure looks back at us. He could be one of the picnicking men in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, except the situation we find him in is no frolic. Rauch is open to what he has elsewhere described as “the desire for risky encounters,” and his inclination is to stage disruptions in the work; the degree of that disruption can be everything from “a fine fracture” to “an act of violence.” Der Stammbaum is a measure of the former; Sperre/Barrier, 2018, presents something of the latter. The painting includes a captive giraffe, an orator who stands on a wooden crate that is comprised of a roil of snakes, and a woman who is about to cast down a flag, with Old Testament zeal, on a hybrid man/snake whose world-weariness makes him a perfect victim. The colour of the flags the woman holds matches the edges of the wooden X-shaped barrier above him. In other paintings by Rauch this assembly becomes a surrogate crucifix, waiting for a man or a snake, or both.

Neo Rauch, Der Stammbaum, 2017, oil on paper, 66.25 x 81.375 inches. © Neo Rauch. Courtesy Neo Rauch Studio, Leipzig.

This is conjecture; as viewers we are always in the position of trying to piece together a narrative that remains allusive. Rauch says in the following interview that he is on the lookout “for kaleidoscopic messages from the depths of my subconscious,” and he suggests that his imagination can best be characterized by the mycelium, the widely branched, underground mushroom. For him, “everything is connected.” Below the surface his mind forms “strange patterns and at crucial moments the compressed materials break through the crust and manifest themselves as forms.” He says that “a good picture should be timeless, suggestive and peculiar.” Using this definition, he makes very good pictures, indeed.

Rauch’s paintings and drawings always involve a story, but they don’t make available any of the conventional ways that we have come to understand what that story is. In a painting called Vater/Father, 2007, a vaguely melancholic man, tidily dressed and holding in his arms a small-scale human being, stares off into space, while another man takes pictures with a small 35 mm camera. There are other paraphernalia on a table in the foreground: a vase, an armour breastplate, a cluster of four small votive candles and a meringue dessert. Beyond the foregrounded table is another table on which sit plated pie slices, and above them are four ornate letters that spell out the name of the exhibition: “para.” What is most peculiar is that while the three men appear to be the same age, they are all different sizes. The most conspicuous thing about the largest figure—presumably the father of the title—is that he wears a pair of ridiculous, cartoony yellow rubber gloves. He looks to be a compromised caregiver in the same way that the painter in Parabel, 2007, who also wears floppy gloves, will have considerable difficulty in painting the way he wishes he could. Rauch suggests that the figure in the painting is a self-portrait whose specific condition says something about the life of the painter generally. “It is quite obvious,” Rauch says with absolute conviction, “that this calamity turns into a metaphor for a permanent dissatisfaction with the painterly process.”

Kap, 2018, oil on canvas, 118.125 x 98.375 inches. Photo: Uwe Walter. © Neo Rauch/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Neo Rauch was born on April 18, 1960, in Leipzig, where he still lives. He is the best-known member of the New Leipzig School, a contested name assigned to a group of painters who studied at the Leipzig Art Academy, the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, in the late 1990s and who have since come to international prominence. He is represented by the David Zwirner Gallery in New York and by Galerie EIGEN + ART in Leipzig/Berlin.

Neo Rauch responded to a series of emailed questions on July 22, 2019.

BORDER CROSSINGS: In an interview in 2007 you talked about how pictures get made and you said you reach a point where you give the painting “the freedom to demand the addition of particular building blocks.” This is what a lot of writers I have interviewed say, that at a certain point the story or the novel starts writing itself. Does your painting, similarly, start painting itself?

NEO RAUCH: Yes, at a certain point I take a step back and follow the directions of the painting and try to fulfill its demands in a diligent manner.

Does that make you a kind of painterly amanuensis, a recorder of the movement of your own imagination?

Certainly. I look for kaleidoscopic messages from the depths of my subconscious and make sure that the material on the canvas translates my subconscious into a compelling composition.

Is your imagination more rhizomatic than organic, so that it relies less on growth than on a series of unpredictable and unplanned eruptions?

I like the term “rhizomatic” because it seems to lead me in the right direction. However, the “mycelium,” the widely branched body of a mushroom rooted under the earth, seems to grasp even better the imaginary principle that prevails in my case. Everything is connected; below the surface of our mind things form strange patterns and at crucial moments the compressed materials break through the crust and manifest themselves as forms.

You said in an interview with Ena Swansea that “I’m only in conversation with myself, with my subconscious.” Does that mean that any connections that you make are dreamlike, and unavailable to the viewer as ideas that can be connected to any story or meaning that might emerge from the work?

I create paths that lead the viewer through the gardens of my paintings, though occasionally they may also lead him directly into the jungle of complete incomprehension. In those cases both the viewer and myself have gone too far. In general I believe that a good picture should look like a cultivated garden; where the visitor feels in good hands, feels intellectually nourished, and arrives at a deeper understanding in a non-obtrusive way, and from certain angles he might see enlightening distant views across the hedge in the back. That is what I can provide as a painter. I leave the provision of other educational and reference materials to other authorities.

Neo Rausch in studio. Photo: Uwe Walter. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Because they are not premeditated, do the smaller works on paper become a version of automatic drawing? I know I am getting close to surrealism here and that you have rejected that style of making art, so I’m interested in your sense of the distinction between how you work and how surrealism operates.

Yes, the smaller works on paper can be considered a piano exercise, but I still move along the same tracks of my associative imagination as on the big canvases.

The paintings and large drawings seem to embody something that approximates a very particular kind of folklore, but one in which the narrative is not available to the viewer. Does that characterization of the look of the work make any sense to you?

That seems to be an accurate characterization. Apparently I’m on the trail of an imaginary ethnological phenomenon! I scrape the soot of the millennia from a glass surface, which gives us a window onto a parallel universe, whose inhabitants carry on with their everyday activities and rituals without knowing that they are being observed.

One of the ways in which the paintings and large drawings are confusing is that while their meaning is ambiguous, the rendering of the component parts—the figures and objects and architectures— are resolute. They are the opposite of ambiguous.

Are they so clearly made as a way to highlight their resistance to being understood as elements of a readable narrative? The question can be answered completely in the same sense as the previous ones: the robustness of the claim corresponds to the intensity of the perception offered by the cleared glass.

You have said that one of the things you need in painting is “the desire for risky encounters.” Do you ever find it necessary to dial up the risk factor because you regard the work as getting too settled?

That depends on how finely the scale for the concept of “risky” is adjusted and on which level the encounter should take place, whether on a formal or on a content level. If an image becomes too settled and complacent, then I feel that a disruption in the composition must be staged, which could expand in the space as a fine fracture or as an act of violence.

You claim that you want to avoid the possibility of making a disinfected painting. Does that mean you will expose it to being infected, and is there a procedure or a strategy for doing that?

Perhaps what I meant is that it is important for me not to keep the picture clinically pure but to ensure that the noxious can also nestle in it. The aim is not to create zones of moral and formal purity but rather to correspond to the impure and the sensual that are inherent in the image.

Is there a risk that the painting or drawing can be poisoned?

Neo Rausch, Top: Propaganda, 2018, oil on canvas, 98.375 x 118.125 inches. Photo: Uwe Walter. © Neo Rauch/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Bottom: Sperre, 2018, oil on canvas, 98.375 x 118.125 inches. Photo: Uwe Walter. © Neo Rauch/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York.

Yes. By taking on an overdose of moral, political or additional overzealousness, it can be poisoned.

One of the ways you talk about composing is that you are attentive to the times when you have to make a cut and put in what you call “zones of interference.” You also insist upon the necessity of “inexplicable zones.” What determines that intervention? Is it an aesthetic decision?

Yes, these are purely formal aesthetic decisions.

In the interview you did with Robert Ayers in 2007, you referred to a rather “precarious balancing act between thesis and antithesis, between above and below, real and surreal” and so on. That framework is classic Hegel, and if we carry the philosophical argument through, is the completed painting a synthesis of those contrary conditions?

As a painter, I am automatically in the position of the equilibrist. To bring a picture into balance means to balance it out on all its sides, otherwise the composition will not work and it will create physical tension with the viewer, which would ultimately impact the viewer’s state of mind. This model is, indeed, a direct reflection of conditions in society.

This connects in an intriguing way with your idea that the fundamental tenet of modernism is doubt. Am I right in thinking that a precondition for successful or satisfying expression is to keep doubt operating?

I need doubt as well as certainties; only the latter is to be treated with caution. When I speak about balanced states, they also refer to these two antipodes. Certainties can lead to political, moral or religious states of hardening that doubt can disrupt. Doubt protects us against ideological infection and it is invigorating and inspires me to find alternatives in painting as well as in society.

Is the meaning of art, then, the deliberate expression of an epistemology of doubt?

This is a nice conclusion. If art has any meaning, it may be that.

This gives me an opportunity to return to literature, poetry this time. The 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote about poetry as “seeing things slant,” a perspective of indirectness. In this regard, do you want to paint things slant as well? Your version of this is “the glimpse out of the corner of your eye”?

Strange. That would mean that I start from an outsider perspective and then work my way to the middle. Rather I seek to preserve the position in the middle and out of the corner of my eye to give a high importance to the predecessors. Therefore, in a fundamentally boring context, I try to be open to the unnameable, unknown and weird.

At one point you said you were “only interested in the images and the text between the lines.” Does that mean the core of your work is the interstitial? So what you’re interested in is the imminent relation of one figure to another, or a situation that is at a point where it is about to change?

“The text as the bars of the cage and the treading tiger behind it.” In this way Ernst Jünger characterized the effect of poetry. And what is true of poetry, I also claim for painting. Of course, there is also a door hidden in the bars, and whoever possesses the key for it, faces the Essential immediately, as long as he makes good use of it.

Is this what Luc Tuymans is getting at when he writes about “the strange feeling that your paintings are holding in their breath”? The implication is that when they breathe out, everything will change?

Yes, exhaling would be like opening the cage.

…to continue reading the interview with Neo Rauch, and others such as with Wanda Koop, Alex Janvier, and Tammi Campbell, order a copy ofIssue #151 here, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.