Bizarre forms intrude into mundane settings. Blank-looking protagonists put unidentifiable objects to mysterious uses. Skewed compositions are dominated by dramatic juxtapositions in scale, as figures loom over factories or dwarf other humans. These unsettling conundrums are rendered by Neo Rauch, a forty-year-old artist born in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. Rauch trained as a Socialist Realist painter, and his palette of unnatural greens, reds, yellows, and blues - some garish, others faded - is reminiscent of Soviet-era advertisements and illustrations. It is difficult to account for the haunting quality of his canvases: stubbornly resisting rational interpretation, they are strangely mute, while hinting at some powerful underlying source of anxiety.
A characteristically suggestive work depicts two men in a living room with a fireplace in which, on a patch of black, hovers the word 'Neid' (Envy, all works 1999), which also serves as the painting's title. Facing away from his companion, one of the figures gazes through a window at a blocky, lurid red-and-yellow sunset. The painting is divided into two sections; and the left-hand side is filled, like a cluttered closet, or dream-space, with what appear to be stacked monochrome canvases. One wonders what kind of truncated narrative is being implied. Has art come between this pair of seemingly alienated protagonists-or is it the object of some shared longing? On the mantelpiece sits a metronome, a curious emblem that reappears in Takt (Time), which presents a similar scenario: one of a pair of men plays a blue piano as a striped balloon, seen through a large window, levitates against an entirely black sky. Other paintings allude to work and production, although the figures that people these scenes-thoroughly embracing neither work nor pleasure-are far removed from the energetic, single-minded 'positive heroes' conjured up by Socialist Realism. In Instrumente, for example, two beefy manual laborers relax in an inscrutable fashion: one swings stiffly from a pole, while the second cradles a crude guitar that seems to have been either cut from a tree (trees stumps appear in the background), or cast from concrete.
Invoking the anarchy of the unconscious, these mysterious scenarios are at times reminiscent of the work of Surrealists like Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. In fact, J. Hoberman has written, noting striking similarities between the two movements, that 'it is . . . as a rival of surrealism that we should consider Socialist Realism.' When creative expression is juxtaposed with scientific pursuit, Rauch's work also calls to mind a more contemporary reference, Mark Tansey's exactingly rendered enigmatic allegories. Again echoing Tansey, some of Rauch's paintings are near-monochromes, such as the almost entirely vermilion Einbruch (Burglary), in which a dummy with a rectangular hole in its chest appears to have just fallen through a ceiling into a workspace, knocking loose planks, cables, and fluorescent light fixtures. In this large oil-on-paper piece, one of the most striking works in the show, Rauch's blank-looking protagonists seem to have gained an inkling of their own numbed state through the mannequin's dramatic intrusion.
Rauch's production (how odd that word sounds when applied to his dreamlike derangement of Socialist Realist conventions!) is not the kind of work that strains to reinvigorate painting. It does, however, suggest possibilities for the medium, merely by reminding us that, just as modernism has had many facets, the meaning and lasting potency of its remnants vary widely according to geographic and political context. The haunting resonance of Rauch's images - which draw on what Hoberman calls 'an accursed vanguard, the last of the great European 'isms' - contrasts with the narrow field of end-game painting in New York, in which it often seems the smallest innovation is heralded as an unlooked-for, hence nearly miraculous, revitalization.
In her 1968 book The Quest for Christa T., the East German novelist Christa Wolf wrote of her elusive character, a sensitive woman who lends her imagination to the communist cause but is unable to conform to an increasingly rigid society: ' . . . the new world that we were making and making unassailable-even if it meant building ourselves into the foundations of it-that world really did existWhatever they may say, the new world of people without imagination gives me the shudders. Factual people. Up-and-doing people, as she called them . . . And she did try to accommodate herself to them. And she compelled herself to be rational.' Rauch's paintings explode this seamless, totally rational world, revealing it to be a supremely irrational project - a world that both sprang from and denied the imagination.