Neo Rauch‘s canvases are dense panopticons, the figures he paints trapped in their own story, frozen in time among other lost souls condemned to the same fate. The stories the paintings tell are just as easily interpreted as misinterpreted: twisting roads that lead to haunted houses or burning furnaces, oversized beetles performing for or preying on their human companions, and often a stern-looking woman chastising an exhausted man hiding behind a canvas or hunched over a table with his head in hands.
“They come from my mind, my soul and therefore must be of me, but they are also not me,” their creator says, when we meet at his studio on the top floor of an old cotton mill in Leipzig, Germany. The 58-year-old Leipzig native goes on to describe how the pieces flow out of him, at times summoned through excursions or trips, such as a visit to Crete, and other times bubbling up from his childhood or seemingly thin air.
“I approach the canvas like a white haze. I spend hours, days, weeks meditating into that fog until the images start to surface in front of my eyes,” he says. “I often paint a figure over and over again, the shoulder or arms or head all need to be of a very specific weight and proportion before they are finished and sit perfectly in the frame — one figure could send the whole cosmos another way.”
Rauch says a “quick” painting could take around a year but it’s never as linear as that. And his studio definitely attests to the fact. The space is filled with canvases, some on easels, others stacked against walls, table legs, chairs. In fact, every available surface seems to be supporting a frame. There are also books, CDs, bottles of wine and whisky, and even a beautiful array of house plants. It’s every bit the studio you’d imagine, down to the thick crust of oil paint coating it all. The only rather uncanny fixture is a little pug, who dominates the space in a loveable way that reveals a hint of Rauch’s sweeter side.
When asked to explain his process, Rauch says, “In general my work bundles all the images, reflections and information into one stream of consciousness. I then occupy that particular point of internal and external influences, and react to that. I paint from that starting point always. That’s the moment when the image finds me.
“I’m a rather chaotic person and so the canvas tames my mind. My images reflect on narratives that I find inside me. They are somehow inconsistent and hence painting them gives them a form that holds a certain plausibility; saying that, they do keep me awake at night. They are a waking dream. I do see one consistent trope in my expression and that is that the form has to be legitimate and has to tame the pandemonium that is my internal landscape.”
The air in the studio is heavy with turpentine and oil. It’s a smell that reminds me of lilies, I tell Rauch. He smiles and says, “Every studio has its own scent.” We talk briefly about lilies being symbolic of the moon, a space of light and death, and this leads to talk of his formative years and how he began to paint.
Rauch’s life has been as tumultuous as his paintings — skewed awkward reveries that would haunt anyone, well, forever. At birth he was christened Neo, an ancient Greek prefix meaning “new” or “revived”. It was just four weeks later when he lost his mother and father in a train accident, and a year after that when the wall was built that would divide Berlin for almost three decades.
Rauch, who recalls despising the wall, grew up in East Germany under strict Socialist order, where art was seen as political. It had to fall under the doctrine of Socialist Realism, a genre that dealt with proletariat depictions that were often easy to grasp conceptually in order to be accepted by the dominating powers. There were, however, certain younger artists like Rauch who didn’t aspire to such norms and would hold bootleg shows in living rooms and other private spaces.
When I ask him if his own history and story influenced his paintings, he answers while slowly turning the pages of a book of his works from the early ’90s — sullen dark blurs of abstract shapes and rough lines entitled Dromos or Gesang. “We all, in the first years of our lives, unconsciously absorb and memorise certain things, without reflecting on them or sorting through them in an intellectual or logical manner,” he says. “These memories, this material is getting stored in subterraneous archives, it is unconsidered and unsorted. It might reappear and emerge much later or it may not, but it’s always there.
“For example, if you’re a painter, it’s likely you archive colours and shapes. You can see that certainly inside me. I have a lot of stored aesthetics (in my mind) from the early ’60s. The way I accessed this was much more intense, say, 20 years ago,” he continues. “Today I’m not that focused on infantile perception — or should I say I’m not really pulling from that memory bank. But these early childhood experiences definitely have been a great source of inspiration for me once I found my real artistic/painterly identity around 1993.
“This was when I finished the first period of self-reflection. Until that point, I was going down all different routes, trying to find my own language. I had idols and role models, but I was mostly wandering around in foreign territory, disconnected from my peculiar and authentic self.”
Rauch and his peers fell into a genre that was dubbed the New Leipzig School, a somewhat controversial term for a group of artists who emerged in post-reunification Germany in the 1990s and was championed by the likes of Eigen art gallery, curator Christian Ehrentraut and dealer Gerd Harry Lybke.
The self-described “very angry young man”, who studied at the famous Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, found painting to be an outlet for his penchant for rebellion and irony, and railing against the Concrete Art movement that had declared the medium dead. “I’ve found it’s about creating openings on the canvas that allow the human mind to sink into them,” he says. “Art is about leaving the airtight concrete surfaces and entering the marsh districts, the peripheral areas, the zone of transition where language fails, where I as the painter have to trust my instincts and my perception.
“That’s how I find my place in the production of art. That’s the domain of art. If I find I can explain everything rationally, it’s not art. It remains only an airtight surface under some neon lights framed in the studio or gallery or seminar room or in the latest Documenta.”
When I visit, Rauch is preparing for Propaganda, a solo exhibition at David Zwirner’s Hong Kong gallery that opens on March 26 in conjunction with Art Basel. His debut solo exhibition in Asia features 15 new paintings and is accompanied by a new catalogue with a short story by novelist and playwright Daniel Kehlmann.
A tiny mock-up of the space sits in the corner of the room. “Would you like to see the show?” he says, laughing. The canvases overwhelm even the model of the gallery, squeezed on to its tiny walls. As I look down into the rooms, I feel as if I could walk straight into his paintings. The familiar figures Rauch depicts are there, all hegemonic in a European aesthetical sense. They mostly conform to traditional gender norms and roles, yet in these new paintings they’re dressed as clowns, magicians, animal tamers or jesters doting more on the mystical.
There’s something morbid about the figures, almost like the walking dead. I once heard someone refer to them as “sleep walkers”, but this description seems somehow too comfortable. They’re frozen and cast into their roles forever, unable to escape.
When asked if his figures are inspired by sleep and dreams, Rauch explains that he no longer uses his dreams as inspiration but instead paints as if he could be dreaming. He speaks in depth about the practice of becoming lucid and the point of view that creates.
“We, of course, are not able to grasp dreams in any rational way,” he says. “They have their own mechanics. Time changes and proportions become irrational. And then there is, of course, the demonic component of every sleeping pattern. There’s often something eerie to dreams. Freud spoke of it as if a dream could be likened to some sort of hairline crack in the familiar. For example, when we dream we encounter a familiar person and recognise that there’s something slightly different to them. It might not even be that person. That’s the weirdness I try to capture and for me, that is a space where painting as a form of expression can become very interesting.”
This hairline crack seems to have found its way into Rauch’s new body of work — you see it depicted in curtains that fall away into the sky or openings that slip into passages of worlds all connected by rhizomes of rooms. They could be likened to works by MC Escher, although they’re never as regimented and nor do they simulate one pattern for one frame.
Rauch’s paintings seem more to traverse between frames. “There are periods in the studio, and each canvas then becomes familiar to the others,” he says. “Like a family, they exist next to one another and therefore they begin to take on characteristics from the others. That’s why you see recurring motifs. They almost become genetically connected, as they’re formed in this room.”
It’s a very romantic notion of painting, I tell him. “Well yeah, sure,” he says with a smile. “It’s about re-enchanting the world.”
Re-enchanting or possessing? This is the question I pose to Rauch, as all art aims to possess the viewer in the sense that the eyes cannot look away. “If we encounter real art, which isn’t always the case just because someone claims it to be art, we experience a moment of absence of gravity. Paused time,” he responds. “We become unhinged, taken away from any rational frame of reference we might have held before. Something is talking to us that’s not entirely human, such as a painting, and it’s sucking us into a parallel universe. In any case, a painting has to have the ability to imprint itself on to someone’s retina to call itself art.”