With an oblivious smile, Mr Twiddle (2010) emerges from a skein of abstract lines and a field of yellow derived from the fat hue of his own uniform. A zookeeper from the 1960s Hanna-Barbera show Wally the Gator, Twiddle is from a series of ‘Cartoon Abstractions’ featuring characters from Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and Tex Avery animations of the same era. The simplified pictorial language of cartoons presents two-dimensional, exaggerated personalities, and this rich cast of archetypes provides a unique platform for George Condo to explore contemporary visual experience in his unmistakable eye-opening style. Famed for his grotesque and startling portraits, Condo plunders a kaleidoscopic array of art historical references from Rembrandt to Keith Haring to Walt
Disney, playing out the feverish simultaneity of our rapid-fire channel-hopping media culture; he also confronts the traditional representative practice of portraiture with its own abject refection, rendering his subjects’ inner lives in multifaceted, chimeric forms that, for all their outlandishness, resonate with a universal human experience of fractured selfhood. ‘They are actors and we are their glass wall,’ he has said. ‘When you make eye contact with an actor on stage it’s a strange experience, it seems that the gaze is sometimes straight at you and sometimes straight through you’ (G. Condo in R. Rugoff, ‘The Enigma of Jean Louis’ in George Condo: Existential Portraits, exh. cat. Luhring Augustine, New York, Berlin 2006, p. 9).
With his own features doubled and distorted behind him, Mr Twiddle’s blankly happy visage seems to belie some existential trouble: this is a glimpse of broken mirror, shadowed self and twisted image. Impenetrably and utterly cartoonish with his comical name and fixed, stylized expression, he seems to be dissipating or disintegrating under Condo’s gaze: there is nothing beneath his surface, so he can only be reconstituted as a schizoid assemblage of elements, his colours spilling out onto a spartan background of mute graffiti. He is a fragment of American mythos trapped on the picture plane, a worn relic of the image influx of an optimistic post-War cultural framework. 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, cartoonishness is laid bare and the pathways of modern memory exposed. 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, butlers (and here a zookeeper) make a mockery of stratified society and fixed roles. That which is schematic or straightforward is inadequate to convey what it feels to be alive today. Condo faces us with the ruins of the constructed dreams of high and low culture, offering a new lens of dark humour and disconcerting truth.