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(Cheryl Carlin)

Back to the Figure

Recognizable forms are showing up in the works of a new wave of contemporary painters

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In Leipzig, 47-year-old German artist Neo Rauch is influencing a generation of post-cold-war painters with ambiguous paintings that mix realism with fantasy, the ordinary with the bizarre. Drawing on the graphic styles of Eastern Bloc comics and commercial art, the Social Realism of communist East Germany, his own dream imagery and elements of his urban landscape, Rauch paints the kind of figures you might find in propaganda posters, but he sets them in scenes that, he says, are "confusingly plausible"—at once familiar and strange.

Rauch describes his paintings as allegories with a personal iconography that remains private. He recently told an interviewer for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art that his decisions as a painter may defy reason—even his own. But what he includes in a painting has its own reality, he says, because "despite all the desire for interpretation, painting should retain the privilege of placing what cannot be verbalized into an obvious structure." Rauch describes his process of making a painting as a struggle to balance what's recognizable with what's inexplicable. "For me, he has said, "painting means the continuation of a dream with other means."

An exhibition of Rauch's work is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (through Oct. 14).

Barnaby Furnas

Barnaby Furnas, like fellow Columbia University art school graduate Dana Schutz, has set up his studio in a converted industrial loft in Brooklyn. His paintings, inspired by late-19th-century French history painting, combine figurative elements with techniques he's derived from graffiti and Abstract Expressionism.

"As a teenager growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, I was a graffiti writer first," he says. "I got into all sorts of trouble, got arrested, but I always had one foot in art class." Eventually, a friend's father took him to some art galleries in New York City. "That's really the only way I would have even known that the art world ever existed," he says.

Furnas, 34, paints his canvases flat on the floor, as Jackson Pollock did. But instead of dripping oil paint à la Pollock, he creates puddles of water-based paint that he piles one on top of the other to create form. For a series about the Civil War, he filled a syringe with red acrylic paint that he squirted over his canvases to represent blood. "Oils would never dry in time for the way I'm using paint," he says, "flat on the ground, in puddles. A lot of that goes back to graffiti. One of the things I liked about graffiti is that it deliberately misuses material. You could take spray-can caps off of one aerosol, say a countertop cleaner, for instance, and put it on a paint spray can and get a completely different effect from the nozzle....I've never bothered with easels or brushes even. I have a huge collection of spray-can caps, the way I imagine some oil painters have brushes. In my work, there's a sort of willful mixture of what's in the hardware store and what's in the art store."

In art school at Columbia, Furnas found himself rebelling against an older generation of teachers who were, he says, "conceptual and postmodern artists, almost no painters." He saw painting as an act of self-expression that was out of vogue. He also wanted his work to be accessible to viewers without the need for academics to interpret it. "I didn't want these people in black suits talking about my work," he says. "I didn't want an intermediary." He decided to "go back to the seeds of Modernism," he says, "to Courbet and Géricault and Manet, to late-19th-century French history painting. I was able to reinvestigate the genre and come at it in a different way. So I've become this sort of Modernist thrift-store shopper!"

An exhibition of Furnas' work is scheduled for spring at the Stuart Shave/Modern Art gallery in London.

Katherine Lee

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