Neo Rauch’s Fractured Fables

The paintings of Neo Rauch are dense with symbols. They’re bathed in a cloudy 19th-century ambiance, burdened with portent and packed with strange, incongruous happenings. Figures situated in claustrophobic interiors or within landscapes that are no less oppressive engage in mysterious and sometimes ritualistic acts. A single canvas can contain myriad events and things; the smaller paintings, while less various in imagery, feel just as knotty.

In Der Nächste Zug (The Next Move/The Next Draw) (2007), one of a suite of paintings on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two dandies sit and smoke in the foreground, momentarily lost in thought. Behind them, a couple—a man and woman, perhaps; it’s hard to tell—has sex. A painter’s palette, a large book and a claw-like object are stacked on a nearby canopy bed. A smear of gray oil paint—a brushy affectation—floats in front of it. The space depicted is fairly sensible; the juxtaposition of people and things inhabiting it is anything but.

In other pictures, people burn flags a stone’s throw away from a bomb and a large saltshaker. A medieval pageant features an Annie Oakley–like figure, a black panther and a man in a Taurus mask being burned at the stake. A small dragon perches on an anvil. A Johnnie Walker doppelgänger with wooden planks strapped to his legs strides with unflinching determination. History is recalled, distorted and traversed. Indications of our own age are rare: some graffiti, a passing nod to Walt Disney and, in Vater (Father) (2007), a camera held by the artist himself.

Mr. Rauch’s images are parables muffled by alienation and bereft of discernible morals. Having come of age in a divided Germany, the Leipzig-based painter employs the conventions of Social Realism—its leaden sense of purpose, in particular—without endorsing its false promises or capitulating to its aesthetic constraints. The paintings aren’t expressly political; they thwart propaganda even as they evoke its typical gestures. They do, however, evince a profound sense of history’s failings. In important ways, Mr. Rauch continues to be an East German artist.

The paintings defy easy categorization; comparisons to Surrealism or Dadaism only go so far. Mr. Rauch’s pictures do embrace the irrational, but they aren’t emblems of the subconscious or challenges lobbed at Western civilization. The only thing that links the artist to Expressionism is nationality. And likening Mr. Rauch’s idiosyncratic imagery to the bland certainties of Pop Art is specious: His commingling of styles is best seen as epitomizing the scattershot aesthetic of postmodernism. Mr. Rauch reveals its hollow aspirations even as he builds upon its artifices—a deftly underplayed paradox.

One gauge of Mr. Rauch’s accomplishment is how adamantly his work resists interpretation. “Meaning” is present but, by and large, not entirely of consequence. There are no one-to-one signifiers among Mr. Rauch’s bleak cast of anonymous men and women, shabby environments and baffling customs. It’s enough that these anti-narratives have been realized, thoroughly and with dour persistence, by the act of putting brush to canvas. His inventions make sense on their own terms—the only kind of logic we can ask an artist to fulfill.

Mr. Rauch tells us that his paintings emanate from his artistic “trans­mitter”: They grow “out of the floor of my studio, as if it was a Witches Circle [of toadstools] … without preconceptions.” Fortunately, this kind of overblown romanticism is obscured in the pictures. That doesn’t mean Mr. Rauch’s florid statements are bogus, though. Careful inspection of his surfaces, with their scrubby variations in tone and texture, testify to his improvisational methods. Avoiding bravura, Mr. Rauch’s brush can take on a startling independence, relying on a mostly subdued and intermittently velvet palette of dim greens, blues and a recurring alizarin.

These 14 paintings—collectively titled para, a linguistic play on the prefix for “beside” or “beyond”—were created specifically for the Met’s mezzanine galleries. Those airless, shoebox enclosures are among the least-accommodating spaces in any New York museum; they’re certainly ill-suited for an artist who thrives when working large. Mr. Rauch has made the most of it. With the exception of Vater and Die Fuge (The Fugue/The Gap) (2007), monumental canvases shuffled off to an adjacent gallery, the paintings are small or emphatically horizontal—that is to say, appropriately scaled to their environment. Still, Mr. Rauch has been stiffed: He deserves the space to realize his ambitions.

Neo Rauch’s Fractured Fables