Great Works: Die Stickerin, 2008 (300cm x 420cm), Neo Rauch

Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

This huge, blaring painting, swingeing in its opulence, by the Leipzig artist Neo Rauch seems to hold worlds of contradictory meanings in balance. At first glance it seems to be a late example of socialist realism writ large, a tremendous social statement of a fairly orthodox kind. There is a group of like-minded comrades here, working collectively towards some common cause; a serious-minded, factory-like concentratedness about the overall scene. The pivotal figure at the table – a woman – has her right hand raised, as if to make a decisive symbolic mark upon this section of yellow canvas. The great yellow and green banner shortly to be unfurled by the female companion to her right puts us in mind of Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People". This leaning banner looks like a call to action. All is just about to begin. Revolution will sweep away all in its path.

And yet this may be not the case at all. This may be a parody of such a scene, an actor's tableau of such an event, long afterwards, a faux-historical mock up of some kind. Which could explain why there is also a kind of curious, behind-the-scenes torpor present here, a listlessness, and even a lifelessness, about the postures of the actors on this stage set (if that is what it is), which helps to make something of a joke of the extravagant display of vibrant yellow. Look at the man slumped back against the wall, arms stiffly spread, for example. He seems more a Guy Fawkes dummy than a man, as if he is in the process of being bored to death – quite literally. His eyes look dead, inward turned. Look at the bearded man seated in the chair also, turned away from the rest. His finger is pointing at something. He is wholly engrossed. His feet rest on yet more billowing quantities of canvas, which are piled in heaps beneath his chair, almost lifting him off the ground.

Very little by way of work is in fact going on here, and the tools being used are risibly small and insignificant. Can a genuine call to action go hand in hand with a couple of pairs of scissors, a roll of tape and some curious, mushroom-shaped objects? Perhaps then this is merely the preparation for a local carnival parade.

So everything is delicately poised between this and that, between a kind of grandiosity of display and gesture, and the vague threat of a disappointing meanness or smallness of outcome. The scene seems to promise much, but to deliver very little, to be a kind of empty shell of itself, all wind, if not windbaggery. Everything seems set fair, but everything also seems to be in doubt. We do not know what historical epoch this is – it could be early in the 19th century. Or earlier. Or later. Our decision as to where and when to assign it has to be suspended because we do not know whether it is for real or not. The space itself feels odd, and this is in part to do with the door frame to the left, and the way in which the further door, and the wall into which that door is set– if it is indeed a door and not a window, and that, it has to be said, is in some doubt – seems to be framed, around three edges at least, in wood. Which might suggest that what we think of as wall and further door is a painting of the same. Hmm. And what is happening behind that door frame to the left, the one against which the top-hatted man is supporting himself? This could be smoke and fire of a rather contrived and theatrical kind.

Is all this then minor theatre in the end, or are all these people genuine actors in some great political drama which is poised to begin, and looking unremarkable – if not bored – because they are harnessing their energies for that great moment when they will all finally walk onto the stage of the street (or onto the stage itself), noisily proclaiming, "Liberty, liberty, liberty and death to the oppressors everywhere"? The sheer size and exuberance of the work – its commanding presence, the sheer panache of its making, its marshallings of colour, all make it look and almost feel like a painting with a message, a painting which surely exudes a kind of optimism. And yet ...

A show of Rauch's work takes place at David Zwirner, West 19th Street, New York, from 4 November to 17 December


Neo Rauch (b 1960) belongs to the so called New Leipzig School of painting. His works, which are often painted on a huge scale, are an enigmatic combination of surrealism and socialist realism. They seem to promise some kind of heady narrative that may involve social and political action, but the activities of the participants are always frustrated, and frenzy peters out into nothingness.

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