Painted in 2003, Infestation encapsulates George Condo’s idiosyncratic approach to picture making. Beneath the expressive brush marks that afford the work a high octane immediacy sits a composition that describes the artist’s total absorption in the European canon of painting. Infestation - first exhibited as part of the artist’s ‘Memories of Manet and Velazquez’ exhibition at Galerie Jerome de Noimont in 2004 – makes a direct reference to Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian through its monochrome rectangular segments . The cancellation of pictorial space that this echoes and enhances the effect achieved by Manet in the version of the painting which hangs in the National Gallery, London, depicting the execution of the puppet Emperor Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian in Mexico in 1863. The disturbance of the field of vision in Manet’s work undermined the ability of painting to aspire to an unmediated, totalizing depiction of reality. It marked a critical step on modern art’s journey towards abstraction – a journey that Condo looks back on through a rear view mirror.
The Execution of Maximilian was painted in such a way that its compositional resemblance to Goya’s The Third of May 1808, was unmistakable. Manet had travelled to the Prado in order to see Goya’s work early in his career and its influence never left him. Condo, as a keen student of art history, is well aware of the relationship between the two painters and may have recognized similarities between Manet’s pilgrimage to Madrid and the decade he himself spent visiting the historic museums of Europe when living in Paris from 1985 – 1995. That Condo should evoke the relationship between Goya, Manet and his own work in a painting entitled Infestation points to the artist’s ineffable sense of irony and humour. The creatures that peek out from behind the central subject – by turns a Magdalena with a halo for a hat and a tongue-in-cheek caricature of a femme fatale – infer an infiltration of the canvas by those very painters Condo so devoutly admires. The conurbation of alter-egos speaks to the challenges the artist has faced when painting in the shadow of the canon, with its attendant and inevitable psychological complexes.
Condo’s embrace of what he has termed ‘psychological cubism’ requires that the entire spectrum of mental states be made manifest in a single image, to reflect, perhaps their co-existence in the human psyche. In this context the furies in Infestation inevitably call to mind Goya’s famous warning, made in Los Caprichos, that the sleep of reason produces monsters. Condo’s gleeful invocation of the proverb suggests an acknowledgment of its veracity.