Monday, 17 October 2011

Review of George Condo: Mental States at the Hayward Gallery

George Condo: Mental States
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre
18 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

“Occasionally real life is crazier than anything that can come from our imagination. You only have to look around you to see how nuts it can actually be.” Such is the opinion of artist George Condo (born 1957, New Hampshire), whose Hayward-organised show, which premiered first in New York, and is now stopping over in London, before continuing its tour to Europe, provides ample support for this belief. Divided into three thematic sections – Portraiture, Abstract-Figuration, and Mania and Melancholy – the show constitutes something of a “conceptual survey” of his work from the past three decades, beginning when he moved to New York’s East Village in 1980.

Upon entering the gallery, one is first confronted by a large blue headless figure, looming down from a larger than life canvas – The Executioner (1984). With long black swirls encircling his body, emanating from his wrists (one could be forgiven for mistaking him for something from Pirates of the Caribbean), he sits against a creamy background filled with scribbled eyes, mouths, and other bodily features. A green head on the ground, also decorated with swirling patterns, is evocative of a medical study object. There are echoes of Picasso and Miró, but this is the stuff of nightmares, the worst fears of an executioner, as his life’s work comes back to haunt him.

Leading from this, along the narrow corridor to the larger galleries beyond, we find a row of gilded bronze heads (all 2002). Their proportions and display are modelled upon classical Greek statuary, and Condo has said that his motivation for gilding them was to create the illusion of excavated buried treasure and relics of a lost civilisation. There is a distinct element of tragedy, with titles such as The Alcoholic, The Crying Girl, and Lamentation, but these are beautiful objects, quite at odds with the grotesque imagery of his paintings.

And, of course, it is for his painting that he is better known, and primarily, at that, for his portraits: “an investigation into human physiognomy and its capacity to convey varied ‘mental states’.”[1] Take, for example, his series of nine portraits of the Queen (2006): some appear to be straightforward, “normal” portraits (Young Queen Elizabeth II; Queen Elizabeth II); some have just the one “peculiar” addition (The Queen is Her Queen, which has a carrot penetrating her head; Pop Queen, with a bizarre laugh and a pop out eye); some carry a variety of Condo’s trademark clown features (Comic Queen, with made up clown eyes; The Mad Queen and The Blonde Queen, both with green noses); and one in particular, Metaphysical Queen, is almost fully abstracted, with recognisably Cubist elements to her face.

A Cubist influence is apparent in a good number of Condo’s other works too, in some more overtly than others. Memories of Picasso (1989) and Spanish Head Composition (1988) are both direct homages to Picasso (the former an adaptation of Weeping Woman, 1937), and Expanding Canvas (1985), one of a series where Condo chose to begin in the centre of the canvas and paint outwards until reaching the edges, depicting whatever images came to his mind in the process, is a brownish-orange colour, and incorporates candlesticks and other compositional elements, much akin to some of the early Analytic Cubist still lifes.

Other artists who are said to have been of particular interest to Condo include Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Goya, but I also recognised distinct elements of German artists George Grosz and Otto Dix, as well as of William Hogarth and Francis Bacon. Echoes of the latter abound in particular in Screaming Priest (2004) and the three crucifixion paintings: Gestas, Jesus, and Dismas (2007).

Many of the portraits comprising the salon-style hang, opposite these, are equally sadistic, disturbing, and ugly. “If somebody said to me: ‘Do you think they’re hideous? Do you think they’re ugly?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, absolutely!’” declares Condo, unabashed.  “But they’re ordinary, nice people, you know. That’s what my relatives look like. That’s what the early American settlers looked like.” Well, maybe not with the cartoon features and green noses? No, but Condo contends that all cartoon characters are also based on real people. “I like to think that my characters have a life before they hit the canvas, and a life after. But I think they’re completely abstract in terms of narrative. The meaning may be abstract, even if the painting itself is figurative.”

That said, the paintings in the final section, Mania and Melancholy, are undeniably a commentary on contemporary society and its material excesses. Characters roll around drinking, smoking, having sexual encounters, destroying both body and mind. “These things disturb me, and I have to paint them out of my system,” explains Condo. And this, I would venture, brings me back to the opening statement: case in point.

[1] Wall text in exhibition.


The Butler, 2000
Oil on canvas
101.6 x 73.7
Private Collection
© George Condo. Image courtesy the artist

Installation view of George Condo: Mental States at the Hayward Gallery
Photo: Linda Nylind

Couple on Blue Striped Chair, 2005
Oil on canvas
165.1 x 152.4
Private Collection, Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
© George Condo. Image courtesy Luhring Augustine

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