"Representational pictures are the artist's body, abstractions are pictures of the artist's mind."
-George Condo, 2011
Emerging during the apex of his international popularity, George Condo's large-scale The Manhattan Strip Club was executed only months before his first major survey at the New Museum. Straddling the line between comedy and despair, the grotesque and the beautiful, Condo's rich pictorial creations have made him one of the most inventive artists of his generation. Celebrated as a bridge between the figurative tradition begun by Picasso in Le demoiselle d'Avignon--through a deviation into the abstract figures of Willem de Kooning--now transcribed into contemporary painting, Condo derives his inspiration from a large host of art historical movements, dating from the Old Masters to Cubism and Pop.
Populated by a crowd of tragi-comic beings that exude a profoundly compelling oddness, The Manhattan Strip Club is occupied by a cacophony of characters whose bulging eyes, bulbous cheeks, proliferating limbs, and jarring over-bites set them apart as a singular species. Gawking at and clamoring over a pair of New York strippers, who simultaneously encompass the visual appeal of Ingres' fleshy nudes and the Cnidus Aphrodite coupled with the simplistic line drawings of Pablo Picasso as well as Tex Avery's cartoons, Condo captures the mental states of his club's patrons. In a style he has dubbed, "Psychological Cubism," Condo deviates from Picasso and Braque's practice of instantaneously depicting different facets of an object and in turn sets to paint the internal, ever changing, and often conflicting emotions of the human face. In Condo's paintings the topography of the face leaves behind all physical appearance in favor of mapping out the furthest extremes of the human psyche.
Self-consciously disarming the viewer's expectations, Condo's images of nudity, sex, rage, insanity, glee, violence, loneliness and alienation become wrought with a complex mixture of emotion and interpretation. Fusing heroic modes of abstraction and debased forms of figuration, Condo's work observes that the transcendent aspirations of 'high' culture are inevitably tangled up with our more clownish natures and desires. Over the past three decades, in canvases that articulate this kind of potent and mixed emotional charge, Condo has explored the outer suburbs of acceptability while making pictures that, for all of their outrageous humor, are deeply immersed in memories of European and American traditions of paintings.
Forged from these fragments of art-historical memory, his canvases wantonly co-mingle elements of the stunning and the shocking, provoking a kind of mental whiplash that unhinges the hold such categories have on our perception. Often directly alluding to the works of Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Goya, Condo's paintings were designed to present "an artificial simulated American view of what European painting looked like" (G. Condo, quoted in George Condo: Mental States, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2011, p. 12). Though void of these particular references, Condo's execution of The Manhattan Strip Club retains many of the traditional techniques implemented by such artists. Set against his preferred ground coat of pale, bluish-gray acrylic paint, Condo's lush nudes come to life in a practice modeled after great European painting. "I like the gray primer," Condo affirmed, "because it gives a burnished look to the flesh. They used this in Dutch painting--the Spanish and the Italians use a sort of rusty brown" (G. Condo, quoted in C. Tomkins, "Portraits of Imaginary People," The New Yorker, 17 January, 2011, p. 58). Here, Condo fuses his venerable process, with a subject reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge or Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and his own distinct cast of characters to create a wildly evocative contemporary masterpiece.
Garnering an audience of celebrities and fellow contemporary artists, Condo's uniquely provocative works have invited frenzied interest among high-profile personalities. While his career spans nearly three-decades, it is over the past five years that Condo has shown a heightened interest in collaborations, with none more notable than his 2010 involvement with menswear designer, Adam Kimmel, and rapper Kanye West. Making his runway fashions an event as much as a collection, Adam Kimmel has often collaborated with other American visionaries. Having previously shared his stage with artists Rita Ackermann and Doug Aitken, Kimmel invited Condo to create a series of masks derived from the artist's own private mythology of cultural types. Inspired not only by the grimacing characters in Condo's artwork but by the artist's own 007 lifestyle, the resulting dastardly crew, akin to villains in a comic book movie, were momentarily liberated off the canvases of paintings like The Manhattan Strip Club, if only to accompany their creator to Monte Carlo or the Paris runway. Resulting in a hilarious foil to the impeccable menswear, Kimmel's 2010 Casino Collection brought new life to a distinct cast of characters, which are strictly of Condo's creation.
By far his most infamous and publicized collaboration to date, the five paintings he created for Kanye West's 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, received a significant amount of publicity. One cover, featuring Kanye and an armless sphinx in a scene that could only take place in the backrooms of The Manhattan Strip Club, was banned from several vendors, including Wal-Mart and iTunes. The embodiment of Kanye's album title, Condo's motley crew occupies a dark, twisted world, where humor abates tragedy and our inner demons are realized on a canvas. Fun, provocative, and controversial, Condo's recent collaborations form the perfect metaphor for the artist's works. Painted during the height of his popularity, during a period that coincided with his most notorious collaborations, The Manhattan Strip Club is the perfect fusion of Condo's acclaimed style and the eccentricities of the moment.