Sometime in the past thirty years (late 80s? 90s?) it became trendy to talk about stories or, if you were in academia, about narrative. Stories became the chosen way to convey information, to reach people, to frame your argument. Everyone had a story to tell and many suppressed stories (culturally, historically) resurfaced. In the highbrow novel and in painting an emphasis on storytelling returned even if these stories were often fractured in some way. Of course the crazy thing is that stories ever disappeared (and in truth they didn’t—they never left popular culture!). The truism that we make sense of our lives via stories is, in this case, spot on. But for much of the 20th century in the visual arts they were suspect—an anachronism that did not fit the flat space of the painting’s surface; a literary device that contaminated the pure visuality of art. My undergraduate art program more or less bought that line and communicated it to us even as a host of artists (Guston, Jenney, the Chicago Imagists, Kiefer) brought narrative back, along with representation in general. Guston famously said of his rejection of abstraction that he “Got sick and tired of all that purity. Wanted to tell stories.” And I think the critical rise in Surrealism’s stock in the last third of the 20th century had to do with this trend because Surrealism also never really rejected narrative. What it rejected was a rational narrative (what is a dream after all but a stranger story!). This kind of bent narrative is what drives the work of Neo Rauch. We know that a story is being told but, even at a glance, it is clear that the story resists easy interpretation. We might say that the story is all middle; the beginning and the end are missing.
I got to this trend late. I have only become interested in narrative and especially in what is called meta-narrative about five years ago. I understand the word meta-narrative to refer to a story that embraces a range of other stories some of which may even conflict. As in the Andrea da Firenze fresco below, such a meta-narrative is more likely to attempt to sum up an entire faith or philosophy rather than just one person’s life. It is by nature unwieldy; an attempt to place within one framework more than it can comfortably hold. You get that sense from this fresco, so packed with large and small elements that it fairly bursts the arch which bounds it. That’s one of the things that I like about it (and the color!!). I cannot pull off anything at that scale, but I have been hanging my smaller paintings together as if they were part of some Renaissance altarpiece--except that here there are buildings, heads, abstracts, landscapes all vying for space and attention. It may not always work and the unity that I hope is there may sometimes elude me but, more and more, it is important to make the effort—to see all the pictures as part of one world that I have made out of the flotsam and jetsam of this one.