George Condo’s much-anticipated Mental States finally arrives at the Hayward Gallery
Having provided album artwork for Kanye West, and won the hearts of American critics, artist George Condo’s first major UK retrospective opens today in the upper galleries of the Hayward. ‘Mental States’ provides a survey of a period of 28 years, from when Condo first emerged on the New York art scene in the 1980s, and achieved fame for his ‘Picassoid’ figures – a disfigured figurative style that was steeped in reference to the European and American portrait tradition, but that saw the visual discourses of the ‘Old Masters’ transformed through collision with contemporary, cartoonish mania.
Instead of deploying a chronological approach, the retrospective has been divided into three ‘chapters’: ‘Portraiture’, ‘Abstract-Figuration’, and ‘Mania and Melancholia’. Walking around the exhibition, one is struck by the hideousness of Condo’s subjects. His ‘fake Old Masters’ assemble to create what feels like a nightmarish vision of a gurning National Portrait Gallery. This effect is augmented by ‘salon style’ floor-to-ceiling hanging, ornate frames, and dark walls, mirroring his first major European show in 1985, and emphasizing Condo’s attempts to remember and re-work the past through dialogue with the present.
This postmodern engagement with art history is the leitmotif of Mental States. Often, Condo seems to have reversed the processes of Modernist abstraction, forcing the Picasso grid of fragmentation back onto the fleshy subject, to horrific effect: what if such abstraction was in fact literal representation, Condo apparently asks? Why would the painting tradition wish such discombobulated and dismemberment on the human face? The ‘Chinese Woman’, for example, splutters teeth from a knuckled face, while the visage of Jesus, has become a numbskulled thumb.
His subjects are diverse, from the Nude Homeless Drinker, the Virgin, the Butler, the Old Water Nymph, to the Stockbroker. Under Condo’s auspice, translating their images into his unique physiognomy and typography of the face, they appear to us monstrous: ‘but they’re ordinary nice people, you know’, Condo reminds us – ‘That’s what my relatives look like. That’s what early American settlers looked like’. It becomes ever more clear that, rather than being disgusted by surface physicality, Condo in fact warps flesh to explore the inner hysteria within all of us – ‘the existential madness behind the face’.
Granted, Condo paints that which disturbs him, ‘bad things on the street’, ‘to get them out of my system’. But equally, at the hands of a beautifully expert painter, his subjects are treated with a tenderness that uplifts them. It is for this reason that his paintings – ‘figurative in representation, abstract in meaning’ – offer such rich material for re-writing and re-imagining, with authors such as Salman Rushdie and David Means adopting and adapting Condo creations.
Mental States hit New York by storm when it premiered in the New Museum in January, with the New York Times calling it ‘sensational’. Now it has arrived in London, it will surely procure equal critical acclaim. To coincide with this major retrospective, Spruth Magers – a gallery where Condo has had more than thirty exhibitions – is showing a set of his new drawing works. Drawing has always been central to Condo’s work, something that first became evident in his early series of ‘Expanding Canvases’ (1984-86), in which he allowed spontaneous doodling to fill the frame from the middle outwards. While no Mental States, this exhibition provides a welcome context, an insightful sketchbook for the Condo hungry.
Words/ Photo Ishbel Mull © 2011 ArtLyst