God Save The Queen

George Condo: Mental States
New Museum, NYC
Through May 8, 2011

As might be expected from the hyper-prolific Condo, his retrospective Mental States at the New Museum is a bawdy, sprawling affair. Since the early 80s Condo has continued to develop a body of work which both appropriated and expanded on artists as diverse as Picasso and Velasquez, Guston and Gorky, while striving for a hybrid sort of Pop Surrealism, peppered with subject matter like Crucifixions and Shakespearean dramas. Condo has more often than not hit his mark by accidently landing in a zone of comical, dark, whimsy. This fine exhibition backs him on this gambit by studiously trying to elevate his work to Old Master status.

Condo fills two floors of the New Museum, with examples of work from different periods of his career. As a fisher of images, Condo has always cast a wide net. The subjects of his paintings veer between Picassoid butlers, comic Christs, and anonymous anthropodes which Condo has dubbed "Pods." They are all unified, however, with a kind of loose, viscous, cartoony hand. His deep ties to the history of painting, and his innate sense of taking the piss out of it can be best seen by his two most recent projects: Condo's cover for Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came in five different versions; his recent portraits of Queen Elizabeth II in even more warped, yet somehow perceptive, variations. We can see what we are up against when trying to pin down such a protean artist. While he has drawn from a deep vein of art historical forebears, he has also been a canary-in-a-coalmine for both his contemporaries, artists such as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, and a younger generation of painters like Dana Shutz.

Condo's early forays into an appropriated Cubo-Surreal style (The Madonna, 1982) led to a deeper understanding of painterly abstraction. Works like Dancing to Miles (1987) forged a biomorphic, synthetic, all-over way of painting which was often compared, quite aptly, to Gorky and Matta. This connection was very important, as some of Condo's strongest works date from this period, done at a time in the late 80s and early 90s when Neo-Expressionist shrillness was on the wane. Eventually, though, Condo seems to have shifted his focus from such formalist concerns, and returned to what had by now become a signature style, a meshing of late Cubism and Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy.

Theophile Thore, writing about the work of Watteau, could have been describing Condo's paintings and their concerns over the last decade:

"To superficial observers, [he] does not seem to adhere closely to nature. This, however is his supreme merit…his mysterious and poetic landscapes, in his dazzling bright skies, in the incomparable …figures, with the delicate and deft extremities, in the exquisite coloring of his women’s complexions…they painted princesses, and he painted shepherdesses; they painted goddesses, and he painted women; they painted heroes, and he painted monkeys!"

Keep in mind Watteau's Pierrots and Gilles when contemplating Condo's goofy yet tortured MacBeth, or his more recent portraits of HM Queen Elizabeth II (2006). Compared to Lucien Freud's official picture of the Queen, which is a caricature in its own right, Condo gives us a popeyed Regent in garish, theatrical make-up and wig -- a Paranoiac-Critical study of royalty, or shades of The Sex Pistols ("they made you a moron"). It is on the strength of works such as these that Condo's legacy as a painter lies. Like Watteau, his powers of transforming observed reality into something subjective, and highly personal are most effectively used on the intimate, theatrical subject. In a survey such as this it is sometimes hard to sort the wheat from the chaff although the New Museum has done an effective job gleaning. We are treated to a few too many gilded sculptural variations, more reminiscent of Koons than de Kooning.

What we ultimately take away from this exhibit is the sense of search for a contemporary way to weave together elements of past styles and subjects at a time in our history that is rapidly rendering those very elements obsolete. Condo has struck a Faustian bargain here by allowing himself to stand with the giants and by posing as something of a court jester to them. He hits his targets quite often, but more importantly when he misses, he misses them in interesting ways. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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