Neo Rauch, Maestro of Mise en scene Pastiche,
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Across the steakhouse dining room, their white shirts glowing in the woodsy gloaming, a posse of yuppie guys was singing "Happy Birthday" to a buddy.

Pumped up on beer, red meat, and testosterone, they made it sound like some hoarse, hostile war chant. Jeannie and Betty were freaking out over that weird news story about the female astronaut who drove 900 miles in diapers to attack her rival in a love triangle, and Tony was regaling me with his diabolical plot to save up a large garbage bag of dog shit and dump it on the porch of the neighbor who regularly lets his German Shepherd poop in his driveway in Riverdale, when the waitress wheeled a cart over to our table.

On it, hefty slabs of raw beef, an Idaho potato, asparagus stalks, and the largest Maine lobster any of us ever saw were lined up, as though in a protein-heavy version of one of those 1950s charts showing "the basic food groups." A petite young Dominican woman in a bowtie, she held them up, one by one, and went into a well rehearsed spiel about the taste, tenderness, and preparation method of each, as though these common staples of the American diet were objects of exotic origin.

It was difficult not to smirk and make cheap jokes during her performance, especially when she got to the lobster, which brandished its bound claws and struggled furiously, as she displayed it for our delectation. But one suppressed this smartass impulse, knowing she had to be weary of being treated as a figure of fun by pseudo-sophisticates who think overpaying for dinner qualifies them as Algonquin Round Table wits.

Although our own dinners were prepaid by gift-card, no one in our party of four was tempted by the monster crustacean. After the waitress went off to place our order, the only sentient thing on the cart continued to struggle valiantly. Its writhings aroused the infinite creaturely empathy of Jeannie, who wondered without irony if we should offer it water.

(In a world lousy with sneering ironists, who could blame me for falling fatally in love with such unembarrassed kindness, of which I have been chief beneficiary over many seasons of "for better and for worse?")

Still, when my darling reached for her glass, as if about to do just that, I hastened to suggest that management might frown on one customer administering first aid to another's future entree. And, just then, when the birthday boys across the room started stomping their feet, pounding the table, and clashing beer mugs like storm troopers in a Third Reich beer hall, I began to feel as though we were all trapped in some surreal scene by Neo Rauch, whose new show of paintings opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 22.

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Neo indeed! Could any postmodern art star possibly ask for a more auspicious name? Born in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1960, Rauch often sets his paintings in a dreamlike version of that manufacturing city, where he still has his studio and has spawned a cult of younger artistic acolytes known as the New Leipzig School. In contrast to the young German artists who goose-stepped under the banner of Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s, the New Leipzigs are less identified with strident painterly pyrotechnics than with a confounding figurative hybrid one critic dubbed "Pop-Surrealist Social Realism."

Not only is that term descriptively serviceable, but its awkward syntax matches the ungainliness of the eclectic stylistic schtick none manages more successfully than the wunderkind himself. Applying the visual vernacular of the Eastern Bloc political posters and wall murals he grew up with to a plethora of narrative incongruities that would make even Rene Magritte dizzy, Rauch claims, "I am only acting as a sleepwalking director in my own private theater."

Yet even as he resists interpretation, telling one interviewer his work is "without intention, like a natural phenomenon that cannot possibly be brooded out in dry cerebral recesses," earnest critics continue to puzzle over the possible meanings hidden in the thickets of his unrelenting pictorial prolificness. Frowning figuratively (like the bearded professor types who often appear among his cast of stock characters, poring over plans laid out on tables or ruminating over strange scale models), these critics make significant connections between the locomotives that sometimes appear among the mechanical motifs in Rauch's paintings and the death of his parents in a train wreck when he was six years old. Or else, like Roberta Smith of The New York Times, they attribute his imagistic profligacy to the fact that he was pretty much cut off from art outside East Germany until the Berlin Wall fell when he was thirty, suddenly swamping him with a host of invigorating influences.

"Warhol, Leger and Magritte could number among his current interests," Smith wrote in a review Rauch's 2002 New York show at David Zwirner Gallery. "Or he may be trying to rectify Georg Baselitz's early hero paintings with Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger's sense of the absurd, as well as his own more academic background."

Or maybe Smith's supposings simply demonstrate the disparity between the intuitive methods of many artists and the "cerebral brooding out" of critics. Indeed, what many critics who have never themselves painted may be missing is that even artists of Rauch's ilk direct most of their conscious cunning toward visual solutions, and as far as subject matter is concerned, are quite content to proceed on automatic pilot. Of course, no matter how much he may protest to contrary, no artist minds having his work freighted with critical significance, no matter how far off base. And no artist provides more fodder for making such assumptions than Neo Rauch.

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A typical Rauch is large, even mural scale. There is little differentiation between exterior and interior spaces, although the composition is likely to be set mostly out of doors, amidst low-lying factory structures or tacky suburban dwellings. In some paintings, alpine-looking mountainous vistas loom overhead. In others, Strip Mall Moderne structures of glass, steel, and concrete perch atop hills or cliffs. These and other architectural elements often appear abandoned, in disrepair, and have a way of petering out into sketchiness, as though the painter got lazy or could not figure how to cram the perspective into the already busy picture plane convincingly, or-- subverting the narrative with self-conscious artiness-- decided it would be cool to leave traces of "process" by affecting a deliberately "unfinished" look. (Indeed, Rauch routinely juxtaposes a tight retro-illustrational mode and slapdash painterly effects within a single canvas.)

Almost always, the mise en scene terrain is cluttered with unidentifiable mechanical or organic objects with which Rauch's mostly male figures appear to be physically engaged in a manner that suggests labor, but of no known kind, toward no apparent purpose. Sometimes these hapless workers wield useless-looking implements that could recall Richard Brautigan's line "loading mercury with a pitchfork" or struggle with viscous substances that, depending on their color, could either be gobs of paint, entrails, or excrement. (Here, again, self-conscious artiness intrudes, as though Rauch wants us to see these gooey shapes as little "abstractions" and nod knowingly.)

Like those in the early paintings of the British artist R. B. Kitaj, Rauch's figures often have a flat, cut-out look, like paper dolls pasted onto a backdrop. They can also be wildly out of time and scale, even when occupying the same plane, as when a 19th century dandy in a tophat wanders into a modern setting carrying a Mini Me replica of himself.

While vacationers in bathing suits may wade nearby in puddles of industrial waste, the primary activity in Rauch' paintings is invariably some sort of work. A recurring character is a man hoisting on his shoulder a huge mammoth-tusk. He may be alone or join a procession of laborers emerging like yoked gulag prisoners from a subterranean factory in a snow-covered cave. One crew of men may toil around an object that resembles a gigantic manual water pump towering toward a sky filled with acidic yellow clouds shaped like irradiated turds. Another group might interrupt their work to gaze up mesmerized as corporate logos appear above the rooftops like religious visions. Or else soldiers may sit in the back of a military transport, hardly seeming to notice as woman wearing a fur collar drags the limp body of a man dressed incongruously in 17th century knee britches and stockings along the sidewalk. "It's clear that there's a problematic core to them that's grounded in the Apocalypse," Rauch admitted when an interviewer commented that he appeared to be creating "an atmosphere of catastrophe."

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The two new paintings that the senior press officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was able to provide me with images of before our deadline (the others, I was told, were still in progress), are set somewhat atypically in interiors, and the figures are more solidly painted than usual, as though Rauch may be trying to measure up to the art historical company he will be keeping in that bastion of classical painting. Perhaps this could also account for the more somber palette of gravy browns and deep blues which have replaced his usual bright billboard hues, as well as the atmosphere of candlelit chiaroscuro, of La Tour-like sfumato, and the suggestion of a Renaissance Virgin and Child in the composition of the canvas called "Vater." (After all, it would be just like Rauch, who has included artists being interviewed by reporters in some of his paintings as his own art stardom has accelerated, to indulge in such self-conscious irony.) Here, however, both figures are adult males, although the one being cradled in the others' arms is infant-size. The nurturer, dressed in dark frockcoat, old-fashioned cravat and grotesquely enlarged yellow clown gloves, regards the viewer with a serene expression that can only be seen, in context, as maternal. As in a La Tour, the scene is illuminated by a row of candles (albeit shaped vaguely like miniature nuclear reactors), near which a third man, also somewhat out of scale but not as much so as the infant with adult proportions, stands fiddling with a camera, as though preparing to photograph the two main figures in the foreground.

"Jagdzimmer," the second new painting for the show at the Met is set in what appears to be a rustic hunting cabin, an impression enhanced by the dead fowl hanging from the low rafters and laid out limply on a rough table around which three men and a middle aged hausfrau are gathered. While the woman prods the dead bird on the table with her finger, a bearded older man reaches up toward the dim ceiling lights as if to warm his hands on them, as one younger man lights another's cigarette. This might seem a relatively benign scene if not for the cross-bows that all four figures keep strapped to their bodies or resting within arms reach, which make them appear less like vacationers than Resistance fighters holed up in some dank bunker.

For his show at the Met, Neo Rauch has apparently made some stylistic concessions but his thematic thrust remains the same. At their best, his paintings still suggest an edgy new species of surreal allegory. At their worst, they degenerate into something resembling those trite perceptual puzzles, rife with obvious incongruities, that appear in children's publications under headings like "What's Wrong With This Picture?"

Then again, I was thinking, as we dug into our bleeding steaks, maybe what Rauch is telling us is that, in times like these, best and worst are often indistinguishable.

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- Ed McCormack