‘Monsters are just as beautiful as maidens’
‘The point is not to see how well somebody paints a figure, but something beyond that. A way of saying that the figure itself becomes a map of a number of intellectual processes involved in the idea of making an art work’
A kaleidoscopic assembly of characters peer forth from George Condo’s Appearing Figures. Looking something like a Cubist wedding portrait, Weimar brothel scene and odalisque nude convention all at once, this is a painting that subjects art-historical expectations to glorious and extraordinary fracture. The rouged and eye-shadowed faces of beautiful women are rendered in lifelike pastel, while Condo’s chimeric butler archetype Jean-Louis appears fourfold in their midst, his cartoonish visage receding into sketchy abstraction. The figures emerge from cool planes of lavender, slate grey and turquoise, suffused by sunny flashes of yellow and green; the paint is applied drily, recalling the fading pigments of an ancient fresco. Condo’s theatre of paint takes the medium’s artifice and unreality to task, clownishly crashing different modes to electrifying effect. What could be pictorial chaos is underpinned by technical and compositional mastery: Condo is an expert navigator of our ways of seeing, and arranges his butlers and courtesans with an almost musical virtuosity of shadow, colour, line and rhythm. As if jostling for our attention, these Appearing Figures create a captivating spectacle of the gorgeous and grotesque.
Working from a principle that he calls ‘Psychological Cubism,’ Condo’s signature portraits, outlandish as they are, resonate with the nebulous experiences of selfhood with which we can all identify. In his Figures works of 2009 to 2010, these amorphous faces, toothy grins and cartoonish eyes are besieged by planar abstraction, and offset by the inclusion of lovely maidens shaded partway into three dimensions. Through this juxtaposition Condo, whose influences are as diverse as Picasso, de Kooning, Walt Disney, Miles Davis and his close friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, brings his piercing treatment of art history to perhaps its most arresting and extreme. The women’s garish make-up echoes the background’s pastel glows, highlighting the doubled artificiality of painted representation: for Condo, painting is a richly thoughtful process that must reveal the fantasies inherent in its construction. ‘The point is not to see how well somebody paints a figure, but something beyond that. A way of saying that the figure itself becomes a map of a number of intellectual processes involved in the idea of making an art work. The figure is somehow the content and the non-content, the absolute collision of styles and the interruption of one direction by another, almost like channels being changed on the television set before you ever see what is on. All this adds up to one image, and most of the time, that image is a woman. In one way or another’ (G. Condo, quoted in T. Kellein, ‘Interview with George Condo, New York, 15 April 2004’ in George Condo: One Hundred Women, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2005, pp. 32 – 33).
Appearing Figures is more than a masterclass in styles and skills. As Ralph Rugoff has written, ‘It is tempting to read many of Condo’s paintings from the past decade as social allegory, reflecting on a culture wracked by alternating currents of irrational exuberance and crashing despair, melancholia and manic excess. Often these paintings insinuate a landscape of decaying beliefs and failing mythologies … As our surrogates, the artist’s subjects appear to embody both the cartoonishness of contemporary media culture and the pervasive sense of inadequacy and failure that it engenders’ (R. Rugoff, ‘The Mental States of America’ in George Condo: Mental States, exh. cat. New Museum, New York, 2011, p. 19). Here, Jean-Louis is just as important an actor as the maidens. Condo is quick to seize upon signifiers such as the bow-tie, which recurs throughout his oeuvre as an outmoded symbol of service: chauffeurs, waiters and butlers make a mockery of stratified society and fixed roles. Anything so schematic or straightforward as a uniform is inadequate to convey the hall of mirrors that is modern existence, and these motifs instead feel more like a cavalcade of grimacing masks, the painter thrashing schizophrenically through a costume wardrobe. The fishnet stockings recall Otto Dix; the carrot through the butler’s ears channels the surrealism of Magritte; the central woman’s delicate hand echoes Botticelli’s Venus, while Jean- Louis makes do with crude Disney paws. Condo destroys and recasts aesthetic categories, figurative modes and joyous abstract impulses, showing us the ruined dreams of high and low culture and offering a new lens of disconcerting truth. In the end, it all comes down to paint: beauty and the beast stand arm in arm. ‘With me,’ he says, ‘it is a constant fluctuation in regard to beauty. Is beauty a stylized version of the ugly?’ (G. Condo, quoted in T. Kellein, ‘Interview with George Condo, New York, 15 April 2004’ in George Condo: One Hundred Women, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2005, p. 37)