I always look forward to a trip to the New Museum. As the only museum in the downtown Manhattan area that houses exclusively contemporary art, it sets itself apart from all others and has a vibe much more similar to a gigantic gallery than anything else. The show to see: George Condo’s Mental States.
George Condo is an American painter born in 1957 in New Hampshire, who hails from Massachusetts and currently works and resides in New York City. He attended college in Lowell, MA where he studied not painting but rather art history and music. He is known for his painterly depictions of a myriad of characters well known both to the art historian and any purveyor of Sunday morning cartoons, as well as his own slew of disturbing and even pig-faced individuals.
Upon entering the 4th floor gallery of Condo’s work, one feels immediately humbled by the sheer enormity of the wall and the pieces. Some paintings measure a massive ten square feet, while squeezed in between those are miniscule in comparison foot-high works. These character paintings are his more recent work and are anything but standard. While beautifully painted and showing the widest range of stylization I’ve seen, the figures displayed are absolutely bizarre and grotesque in examination, yet wildly familiar. Condo’s art history background has obviously served him well in that he paints versions of Picasso, Rivera, Dali, Rembrandt, Segal, and even some uber-creepy Tim Burtons, to name a few.
Standing there and absorbing these works as a wide-eyed art student I couldn’t help but feel a sense of humor; taking all of these great masters and classical, timeless iconography in painting’s rich history and distorting it almost to the point of pure insult! That being said, I want to stress that this did not at all take away from the work, and if anything made it more respectable to me. As a student of the arts, I’ve bared witness to many a student striving to be great as so many painters before our time, and here comes George Condo, not only handling paint in a way that left me in pure awe, but duplicating the works of the most prominent painters in history, and adding pigs faces to all the figures. It takes a very brave soul to deface what has come to be known as traditionally beautiful.
Treading softly to the floor below, not knowing what kind of freakish faces were awaiting me there, I was pleasantly surprised by most of the work. Yes, there of course were some very unsettling portraits upon entering, but a fast paced walk past those takes one into the next gallery, full of work that is quite different, to say the least. It is in these larger pieces, not so recent as the work upstairs, that I really could see the musicality in Condo. These mural sized paintings flow in and out, with seemingly infinite shapes and faces and figures. The chaos of the layout complementing the simplicity of the materials used. One piece was only oil pastel sketches on black background, making it look just like mad ramblings on a chalkboard. It was beautiful, and seemed to go on for years. I stood in front of this one piece for more than ten minutes, finding something new and exciting each second, and I’m sure had I stayed longer I would have found more still. Condo’s gross pig faces were in these pieces as well, but were not the focus, this time they were the opposite, as something you notice poking out from behind a shape and smiling at you like scary clowns.
I have to say that this room was my favor of the two, if only for the reason that you really could stand there and look at these longer, figuring them out, as opposed to upstairs, which were successful paintings, but not as easy or fun to look at. Not to mention the accessibility factor. The room upstairs is one huge wall, with pieces hung up to the ceiling, which you crane your neck to see, and for someone with less than perfect vision like myself, made it difficult to really investigate thoroughly. Down the stairs, however, the works are shown traditionally, with several paintings to a wall, eye level, and a dream to stroll about in front of, making regular circular rounds as one is used to doing in a museum or gallery.
George Condo is am impressive painter to say the least. The versatility in his work is so much so that one could presumably separate the character pieces from the singular wall; place them throughout any museum individually with a different name next to each one, and get away with it. That’s how different and unique each piece is. Not to say that there is no cohesion, seeing all of his work grouped together in such a way of course presents a theme and rhythm. I fully appreciate artists with a sense of humor; if one can’t laugh at oneself; whom can we laugh at? It was nostalgic for me to see all of the cartoon character influences, old retro Looney Tunes and Hannah Barabara, not contemporary kids shows, the kind of characters that became classic the moment they were hand drawn and animated, that the artist himself must have grown up watching, and laughing at, and squirting milk from his nose because of it. Thinking about humor in Condo’s work, sometimes it is the simplest effort on the artist’s part, by placing an old-fashioned clown collar in a distinguished setting and thus it becomes funny, hilarious even. These are no velvet paintings of crying clowns, the work of George Condo is a slap in the face, followed by a cream pie and a spurt of seltzer just for good measure.