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March 2011, George Condo @ The New Museum

George Condo, Mental States installation view, 2011
Image courtesy, the artist and the New Museum


George Condo: Mental States
New Museum
235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
January 26, 2010, through May 8, 2011

The George Condo exhibition at the New Museum is a survey of paintings from 1980 to present. It’s divided into four conceptual sections: Abstraction, Manic Society, Melancholia, and one floor of mixed work. Containing 30 years of artwork, Mental States includes a variety of artistic styles, the common thread being Condo’s trademark faces: cartoon-like, despaired, and fractured. You may have noticed one on the cover of Kanye West’s most recent album.

The New Museum cites Condo as an art history buff, one who references the old masters by adopting their styles and techniques. His historical references are immediately evident in Abstraction, the first room of the exhibition. Nothing Is Important (1985) is a dense arrangement of black lines looping across a cream background, recalling a Pablo Picasso or a Joan Miró sketch. But while those artists’ drawings are typically minimal, Condo’s canvases are crammed to capacity with abstract shapes and tiny drawings. From a distance Nothing Is Important looks like a tangled mass of black wire until one scrutinizes it and they notice cartoon faces (with ovular eyes, dark pupils, and round noses, a bit like Elmo from Sesame Street), as well as imagery typical of art studios, like vases, tables, grapes, busts, and nude models.


George Condo, Internal Space, 2005
Oil on canvas
Image courtesy, the artist and the New Museum

The abstracts are reminiscent of those by the pioneers of the genre, a little Rauschenberg here, a little de Kooning there, but Condo’s mangled faces peer out from between the brushstrokes and the blocks of color. I found many of the compositions to be too jammed to make sense of them, and I longed for a clarity that the artist seemed to deliberately push away. However, when I reached a canvas titled Red Jam ("jammed" being the word that the paintings brought to my mind) I began to think that I might be on the same page as Condo. With titles like Nothing Is Important it seems that Condo’s abstracts are painted from uncertain and exploratory mental states—perhaps why the artist refers to them as “Expanding Canvases.” In these impulsive, frustrated pieces, fragments of nude figures gape with distraught faces, groping at each other in an orgy that seems more mechanical than satisfying—perhaps a metaphor for the artistic process at it’s most labored.

In the next room, Manic Society, Condo displays a more accessible style based around bold, brightly-colored portraits of freaks. Condo’s portraits, described as, “not of living individuals but of invented characters,” are debauched and frequently hilarious. Several visual motifs are repeated throughout Manic Society, including empty liquor bottles, floating bubbles, and of course, crazy sex. Uncle Joe (2005) is an amusing portrait of a man reclined in the grass, a beer bottle balanced on the sole of one foot, and an erection between his legs.

One can predict that these salacious drinkers and lovers are headed for a fall, but in the Manic Society room, they remain frozen in the grip of their indulgence.

George Condo, Mental States installation view, 2011
Image courtesy, the artist and the New Museum

The paintings in the next room, Melancholia, are comparatively subdued – somber tones of blue and black replace neon orange and green. While Manic Society shows characters at the height of ecstasy, Melancholia shows regretful characters at the end of their rope. Executive (2002) features a man in a suit whimpering as he gazes at a carrot dangling before him. The Stockbroker is a portrait of an elderly couple in despair over their financial ruin. While the paintings in Melancholia are more straightforward than those in the other rooms, they lack the unfettered excitement of Condo’s more impulsive pieces.

Upstairs, an expansive wall is decked out with more paintings created between 1980 and now. Here, Condo’s stylistic borrowing is at its most prominent as his cartoons emulate Cubism, the Baroque period, Surrealism, and Pop Art. Many of them directly reference Picasso. With this section’s wide variety of styles and its lack of a cohesive theme, it comes across like a student art portfolio, a quality that is accentuated by the fantastical style of some of the pieces. However, there are a few memorable pieces, particularly the ones painted in Condo’s own style, such as Portrait of a Woman, a depiction of a voluptuous woman with one blue eye, one brown eye, and a Barbie-pink sweater.

Mental States succeeds in capturing transient emotions and in commenting on the obsessions of contemporary culture, but it doesn’t quite gel as a collection. It is best approached as an open-ended sampler of paintings, some that are wonderfully unique, some that feel like dated experiments. In Mental States, George Condo has imagined some interesting characters. The overall message of the exhibition is left for the viewer to imagine.

George Condo, Portrait of a Woman, 2002
Oil on canvas
Image courtesy, the artist and the New Museum

George Condo, Uncle Joe, 2005
Oil on canvas
Image courtesy, the artist and the New Museum

George Condo, The Stockbroker, 2002
Oil on canvas
Image courtesy, the artist and the New Museum


Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski is a writer and artist in Brooklyn. He runs the small publisher On Lives Press and is currently working on a collection of short fiction.

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