Sunday, October 5, 2014

George Condo

Fig. 1. The Cloudmaker, 1984, oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm, collection of the artist, New York.
The play on the Hollywood sign and the renaissance tone of one of George Condo’s first paintings work together to stage his career and style – one of lampooning and timeless artistic dexterity. 

Art, or perhaps more specifically – art history and the art market – imbues a reflexive relationship between creator, critic and viewer that denotes what art can truly be art. Through his inversions, abstractions, and most importantly – his reservoir of historical stylistic techniques, George Condo pragmatically suffocates that relationship to critique the respectability and process of art making, as well as our convoluted subjectivity.

Born in 1957 in Concord, New Hampshire, Condo simultaneously studied music composition, painting and drawing, earning a degree from the University of Massachusetts in Art History and Music Theory. He left Massachusetts in the early 1980s for New York, where alongside contemporaries like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, he began to emerge into his aesthetic known as “Artificial Realism.”

Fig. 2. Ahmed the Tailor, 2013, ink on paper, 209.6 x 154.3 cm,  Skarstedt Gallery, London.
This piece signifies his cubist influences, while also demonstrating the expression and depth of his strokes and color. Condo was adept at a multitude of mediums - drawing, painting, sculptures, and music.

Artificial Realism is rooted in Condo’s inclination towards parody and simulation and his obsession with the psychological implications of the human face.  Although he worked alongside Warhol and Basquiat, Condo distinguished himself from pop contemporaries by reimagining the possibilities of classical painting traditions. In 1983, he honed his classical study in Germany, where the artist himself said he worked to design “an artificial, simulated American view of what European painting looked like.” He borrowed techniques from a wide range of artists, including Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso, yet eschewed the subjectivity of Old Master paintings by creating imaginary and grotesque renditions of political, religious and invented figures in his series of ‘fake Old Masters.’

In 2011, the New Museum and Hawyard Gallery commissioned “George Condo: Mental States,” the first American survey of Condo’s career encapsulating his themes of human physiognomy. It featured a 28-year span of portraits and sculptures organized thematically, rather than chronologically, that explored his artistic concerns and critiques. The exhibition demonstrated his breadth of portraits that revel in all things freaky. He calls upon the cubist tradition of Picasso, the intimate and distorted portraits of Francis Bacon and the abstract expressionism of Phillip Guston to create cartoon-like renderings of disturbing faces, bulging eyes, multiple mouths and devious grins. By doing so, he deconstructs ideas of abstraction by using the representational human face as an avenue into the mental state of both the subject and the creator.

Fig. 3. A Commercial Approach to Abstract Painting,  2006, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 132.1 cm, Phillips Museum.
Condo sought to challenge our limited notions of abstraction. In this piece, he uses symbols of popular abstract art to create a humorous critique on the way in which we interpret and deem a work to be abstract.  

If it weren’t for the explicit nods to ‘high art’ traditions, the humorous and cartoonish subjectivity of his paintings would have left his work vulnerable to the ragged dichotomy of ‘high brow’ art and ‘low brow’ art. Yet, this reflexive provocation of his work is exactly what Condo intended – he aims to disarm and unsettle the viewer to questions our aspirations, our traditions, and our desire to beautify our ugly truths.

Fig. 4. (Left) Pink Seated Couple, 2006, silkscreen on paper, 127 x 111.8 cm, Simon Lee Inventory Catalogue.
Fig. 5. (Right) Jesus, 2007, oil on canvas, 218.44 x 218.44 cm, Luhring Augustine Exhibition. 
Both these works demonstrate what Condo's work elicits - both the subject and the viewer seem to ask, what are you/I looking at? 

Condo is revered as an artist’s artist, one who dives into temporality to go beyond mere simulation to create an aesthetic of ‘manic decadence’ that is shared by not only artists, but writers and musicians as well. In recent years, he has moved into more commercial territory, most notably in his collaboration with Kanye West for his album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which explored many of the same themes of decadence and mania, as well as a multilayered approach to influences that is present in Condo’s work. West called on Condo to be the “visual instrument” for the album artwork; both unhinged by societal norms of expectations and respectability, what was produced was a series of five startling paintings, the most provocative of them being a depiction of West straddled by a nude white woman with wings. The cover was subsequently banned, however engrained into the aesthetic of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Fig. 5. Covers for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, oil on canvas, various sizes.
In response to the banning of the bottom right cover, Condo said: “The superimposition of people’s perceptions on a cartoon is shocking. What’s happening in their minds should be banned. Not the painting.” The covers deal thematically with the relationship between West and his audience, using baroque and cubist styles to explore the decadence that is prominent throughout the album.

It was through this album that I was introduced to Condo’s work. Even though my art history lexicon was limited, I understood that these album covers went beyond their function of album artwork and were speaking to styles that filled the walls of the MoMa. I was moved by his strokes and the saturation of his colors, the eyes that seemed to damn me for even looking but were somehow an invitation into both Kanye’s and Condo’s abstract minds. Like Kanye’s use of samples, Condo’s use of classical techniques speaks to the notion that nothing is original. How we see the world and create our realities is limited to our influences, both conscious and unconscious. Yet, Condo shows that while the process may be unoriginal – the technique, the style – the production is a direct result of the imaginative reconstructive effort of our ideas of art, truth and ourselves; and the abstractive attempt to make beauty out of the horrid and peace with our inner disturbances.

Cashdan, Marina. "The Mental States of George Condo." Huffington Post. 25 January 2011. 

Kois, Dan. "Artist George Condo Explains His Five Covers for Kanye West's Twisted Fantasy." Vulture. 21 November 2010.

Mueller, Stephanie. “George Condo at Luhring Augustine.” Art in America 96.6 (2008): 200.

Rimanelli, David. "George Condo." Artforum International 49.8 (2011): 211. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.

Rugoff, Ralph. George Condo: Mental States. London: Hayward, 2011. Print.

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