"With a shudder I open the various contamination chambers and remove a variety of material from them to temporarily store it in the territories of my paintings" (the artist cited in conversation with Juan Manuel Bonet, Exhibition Catalogue, Malaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Neo Rauch, 2005, p. 76).
The bold scarlet hues and architectonic space which announce Erwerb's Art Gallery as grocery store immediately juxtapose mundane familiarity with the assertively unreal. Purposefully and masterfully working the thickly textured paint to attempt to replicate the German Expressionist woodcut in the overall image, Rauch here wittily disassembles that reference to direct nature in Romantic German art and instead reverses its meaning with a highly intelligent comment about consumerism in the new East Germany, as directly referenced by the title. Effortlessly melding various German histories of image making and technique to underpin a seemingly daily scene with a strange subversiveness, Rauch here attempts to make sense of the overnight switch from Communism to Capitalism in his native Leipzig.
From the outset, this picture's framing asserts narrative: the viewer is cast as a passing pedestrian, playing external witness to the action of the scene occurring beyond the threshold. The figures stand behind the transparent wall, populating narrative, while access into this space is through an open doorway to the left. The impassable glass partition ushers the viewer in while simultaneously segregating and containing the drama. This screening device thus mirrors the invisible fourth wall of a theatrical stage, mediating an audience's suspension of disbelief. It also theoretically echoes fifteenth-century humanist Leon Battista Alberti's dialectic that painting is akin to an open window. In orchestrating framed theatricality, Rauch stimulates the viewer's anticipation and implies some dramatic denouement. However, Rauch, the master of restrained, ironic understatement, forces the viewer to peer awkwardly through the glass and around obstructions to reveal a row of people lined up in a queue, a somewhat quotidian anticlimax. Here the art gallery has been turned into a supermarket with the smartly dressed gentry waiting in line to collect their art rations.
The identity of the queuing characters here is mysterious and it is unclear whether they are autonomous figures or marionettes directed by a separate authority. The back of one figure, cropped in the right foreground by the window frame, suggests that the queue extends out of sight around the interior of the building. The uniforms of jackets, high heels and briefcases apparently denote membership of some professional class. Their portraits are bleak and evasive, blankly staring downwards or into the middle-distance. That arms are folded and bags lie dormant on the ground suggests that the queue is stationary: the static boredom of their bodily expressions imbues the scene with a certain numbing paralysis.
At the head of the line, a man surveys a painting containing the simplified portrayal of a face while the shelves behind the counter carry similar panels. The sheet in the window, the sculptures and a large hanging painting all also illustrate this basic physiognomy, though each is subtly different. Furthermore, variations of the face appear in several other contemporaneous paintings of 1998 including Geschäft and Wahl, whose titles respectively translate as "transaction" and "choice".
Shadows of spontaneous brushwork catalogue the directness of Rauch's technique. The legible adjustments in impasto paint layers belie a repetitive process of description and erasure, showing how composition was reworked on the canvas. This also acts a transparent archaeology of the painting's history as process becomes a metaphor for historical change. Although the painting may initially seem to consist of two colours, there is actually a wide variety of lighter hues, from almost white to a dull light-ochre. Also, traces of blue and yellow pigment occasionally emerge, lending the palette further complexity. The only variance in the opaque earthy red occurs where its wet paint layer was overlaid with a cream brushstroke. With such strong tonal contrast, Rauch's practice of working one colour over another and vice versa is more apparent. For example, the left end of the shopkeeper's counter and some of the faces of the queuing figures have been re-scribed over corrective smears. Rauch has also occasionally scored into the thick paint layer with a point, tracing the outline of the shopkeeper for instance, to emphasise lineation. The blurring of the scored ridge indicates that this was executed into a virtually dry oil paint layer. While proclaiming an independent, idiosyncratic painterly process, Erwerb's graphic schema is also reminiscent of the absolute tonal duality and limited linearity of woodblock prints, emblematised by Rauch's German Expressionist predecessors.
Pentimenti divulge that Rauch's initial lettering above the shop front was much larger and spelt the entire word "Erwerb", whereas now it is cryptically suggested by just "ERW". Erwerb translates as "acquisition" and, like "transaction" and "choice", connotes the processes of exchange and trade. The title thus provides thematic coherence: Geschäft, Wahl, and Erwerb are lexical signposts of a free market. Born in Leipzig in 1960, Rauch was completely surrounded by the controlled market economy of East Germany until the Berlin Wall fell at the end of 1989 and the Soviet Union finally collapsed two years later. Training at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig between 1981 and 1986, concepts like transaction, choice and acquisition were wholly constrained by the socio-economic restrictions of the GDR.
Rauch calls his paintings "pictures from our collective archive" while Lynne Cooke has labelled his corpus "Cryptic and enigmatic in relation to cause, purpose and ambition, it cleaves a precarious path between the twin dangers of nostalgia for a lost idyll, an edenic world of social unity and communality, and a blanket condemnation of present conditions as riddled by anomie and despair, moral, social and psychological" (Lynne Cooke in Exhibition Catalogue, Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, Neo Rauch, 2002, p. 6). Rauch possesses an exceptional facility to allegorize the biography of his nation, and this painting captures the hesitant psychology of a post-communist 1990s. Norman Rosenthal has labelled Cold War Eastern Europe "a social time warp - a collage of industrial production and a style of life that made a pretence of no tomorrow, whilst in Germany at least, maintaining in many fields, a genuine, cultural integrity. It resulted in a productive amalgam of lies and truths that gave a peculiar edge to irony and perception" (Herwig Guratzsch, Ed., Neo Rauch, Leipzig 1997, p. 15). Erwerb is an assessment of observation and Rauch challenges the viewer's capacity to compute information. Among the mundane and familiar, scale and proportion are erratically distorted while a figure with two faces stands patiently in line. Rauch's iconography demands close attention, frequently revealing a paranormal subtlety that mirrors the extraordinary inconsistencies occupying our everyday lives.
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