The past, as seen through art, is a highly curated thing. To try to dispel the cloud of beauty surrounding it is to make oneself mentally exhausted, but it seems to be the very thing to which Neo Rauch and Michaël Borremans aspire in their new exhibitions at New York’s David Zwirner gallery. In both cases, the uncanny past of folktales and distorted memory is the subject: self-harm and bad conscience go toe-to-toe in these shows, with the invisible specter of the devil at the center.
In Borremans’ fourth solo show at Zwirner, this one titled The Devil’s Dress, mournful figures are painted in a rusty palette, holding ducks, dripping blood, and generally looking troubled. The scenes he depicts are still but disturbed, as is the onset of violence. His paintings can only be described as cinematic—in them, one seems to see not only the subject in one time period, in one frame, but also a whirlwind of action and motive surrounding the still image.
Of the many ambiguities in Borremans’ new series of paintings, time is the most obtuse. Even the nudes have a feeling of being out of the past, and every subject gives the impression of being caught very much in media res, the “res” in most cases totally elusive. A child holds in his breath in the Jan Gossart-ish “The Wind.” In “The Loan,” a girl in an early 20th-century party dress stands poised as if on the brink of a jump, a string around her neck, to which no head is attached. “The Wooden Skirt” shows a young girl with her hand outstretched, a few drops of blood falling from it, and an ambiguous hint of self-harm.
While German artist Rauch has left off film-making altogether with Heilstätten, a bizarre series that tells roughly six stories per image, heedless of the need for any depth or incongruity between them—neon everywhere, and scenes so bizarre as to beg description. If they could be described, “surreal” wouldn’t say it quite as well as “anti-real.” The paintings work, despite their weirdness, in the way of political caricature and fairy tales; that is, visual obviousness takes the place of thematic discretion. They are interesting to see, if only because the mind works so hard to piece together a narrative out of them, eventually giving up and realizing that perhaps their point is for the mind to struggle rather than be sedated. “Fundgrube,” for example, shows people in early-century dress trying to shift a futuristic metal machine, while women handle a life-sized bird in the background; in “Türme,” meanwhile, men in peasant dress attempt to feed a rhinoceros-like beast.
Birds in general are to Rauch what ducks seem to be to Borremans: a handy piece of symbolism, consistently intriguing and arguably necessary. But art, of course, is not about necessity. The devil is present to oversee the signing of a document in “Pakt,” while “Heilstätten” shows a town cut in slices, a sort of kaleidoscopic series of scenes that may or may not be documenting the same character as he is helped home, attacked by snakes, and visiting the lavatory. It could be anything from a drunken night out to a retelling of a lesser-known biblical episode. Disparate elements can never seem that disparate, because (one feels) after staring long enough at Rauch’s vision of the world that disorientation is reality, whether it comes via dreams, drink, misunderstanding, or madness. In his new work, as in Borremans’, motive is the mystery. The desire for context is the thing that keeps us looking.
Michaël Borremans’ The Devil’s Dress and Neo Rauch’s Heilstätten are on display until December 17 at David Zwirner.