"Schwieriges Gelaende" (1997) is one of the works by Neo Rauch on view at Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Neo Look

European artist Neo Rauch’s dreary
paintings pose difficult questions
about today’s civilization

There could hardly be a greater demonstration of how contradictory the "avant-garde" is to most people. Honolulu Academy of Arts Director Stephen Little is talking a mile a minute, hardly able to contain his enthusiasm for the groundbreaking exhibit in the Claire Booth Luce Gallery, where he has knocked down walls and stashed a permanent collection to make way for the wall-size paintings of contemporary phenomenon Neo Rauch.

All about Neo

The Honolulu Academy of Arts at 900 S. Beretania St., is hosting two events about the art of Neo Rauch. They are:

NeoNite: Encounters at the Edge

Featuring DJ Dr. Motte from Berlin; German beers and Euro-inspired refreshments for purchase:

» Time: 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow

» Admission: $7; free for Academy members

"Neo Rauch Works, 1994-2002: The Leipziger Volkszeitung Collection"

Through April 17

» Time: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays

» Admission: $7 general, $4 seniors, students and military

» Call: 532-8701

Rauch, of Leipzig in the former East Germany, is a hot, hot property in Europe these days. His paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars practically before they are dry. He has rocketed to fame largely in the last few years, with at least a half-dozen solo exhibitions in Europe and at his gallery in New York since 2001. New York buyers love him.

But in Hawaii few have heard of the guy. Downstairs from Little's office, visitors wander the vast gallery with blank looks. Two women start to enter, scan the room and immediately leave.

It's not hard to see why. Rauch's paintings, monumental as they are, could hardly be called charismatic. Painted in the Social Realist style of old communist posters, with figures outlined in the graphic, muddy colors of postwar magazine ads, they have a weird, frozen quality that seems to repel examination. It is not clear what is going on in these landscapes dominated by factory and warehouse scenes, made all the more confusing when chopped up into different scenes, or superimposed with German lettering.

A beginning painter I know said he paced the room, trying to decipher, "So why is this guy good?"

Little can give you 20 paragraphs on why, without even blinking.

THE EXHIBIT holds a special place in the director's heart as the miraculous child of luck. Through connections in Germany built up in preparation for a show of Polynesian artifacts next year, Little chanced upon people who could help him bring a rare collection of paintings owned by a newspaper in Leipzig for Rauch's first U.S. museum exhibit -- in Honolulu, a place that is not even on the modern-art map.

"It's like the sky opened and Neo fell out," he says.

But Little does not insist that you share his enthusiasm for the work.

The paintings are "difficult," he admits. "This is not a show of pretty or decorative pictures. These are paintings that demand that you excavate the meaning -- the meaning is not clear, and may not even be clear to Neo Rauch himself.

"But I believe very firmly that a painter like Neo Rauch is asking some difficult questions that our political and religious leaders are not asking, about where we're going as a civilization.

"I really believe that he has something to say and that he's saying it for us."

"Buehne" (1997)

CLEARLY, SOMETHING about the 45-year-old East German orphan -- who reportedly paints nine hours a day in an abandoned factory in Leipzig, wary of his own success -- has struck a note with the academy director, evoking torrents of rumination on freedom of expression in these dark and troubled times.

"Everywhere in the world, cultures are going through a big crisis, I think, and artists are among the few people who are able to negotiate crises in ways that help other people," he says. "And those who are honest, who are willing to continue taking risks in their work, provide a great service to the culture."

Little, who has been museum director for just two years since taking over the position held for two decades by George Ellis, is better known for splashy, crowd-pleasing events like last spring's Impressionism show, the recent exhibit of Chinese landscape painters and the immensely popular "Art After Dark" parties -- all designed to bring a wide range of regular folks into the museum.

But contemporary art is also part of the academy's mission, Little says, and if he finds opportunities to bring challenging shows to Honolulu, he will not hesitate.

"The community is more than ready for things that are new and different," Little says. "Our public is increasingly sophisticated, and we have 6 million tourists a year who go to museums, who love art, who come from countries where artists are valued.

"I think Hawaii has the potential to be a major center in the art world," he says firmly.

"Der Hort" (1997)

TRANSPLANTED FROM a landlocked, former communist country halfway around the world, Rauch's dreary industrial landscapes and existential irony about the meaning of productivity might not be as great a stretch as one would imagine from daily life in Honolulu.

It's true that we have no history of industrial manufacturing here, and most people are still more prone to embrace, than to cynically dissect, dominant messages about the virtues of work and consumption. But the sense of unreality that comes from being bombarded by insistent layers of meaning, from stupid slogans to shadowy dream images, has become a universal facet of modern life, from Bombay to the Big Island.

At least, that's what Little is banking on.

"I think all those paradoxes and conflicts that Neo Rauch talks about are here. We face many of the same kinds of problems in Hawaii today, and I think that's one reason people will respond positively, whether it's their cup of tea or not.

"I think people realize that in someone like this, there's something real that rewards coming back to."

The fact is, I didn't care for Rauch's work on first viewing. The ambiguity was unsettling; it was hard to say whether the artist stood behind any aspect of his own work. His paintings were not fun to look at.

But in the days that followed, those surreal images kept burning into my mind a category of truly original juxtapositions, clearing a space overflowing with trite publicity.

I couldn't say I "liked" the work. But liking has little to do with art, to meet Little's test.

"No matter what (exhibit) it is, when people come here, they've got about 30 or 60 minutes of their time -- and that time is an incredibly valuable thing to me," he says.

"You can take advantage of that moment when they are open to experiencing something they might never have seen, from a culture that might be totally alien to our experience. And if they can leave the museum with even one or two ideas they never had before, that is an incredible success."

Neo Rauch will not disappoint on this score. These ideas you have never had before.

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