George Condo: Mental States
On a recent whirlwind trip to London, a city of endless possibilities, we had to pack in as much art, eating and drinking as was physically possible in two days. The mid-career retrospective of American artist George Condo, best known for his surreal and psychologically probing portraits, quickly rose to the top of our list of priorities. Having to fend off the mass of tourists gathered on the South Bank made getting to the Hayward Gallery a bit of a task, yet as soon as we saw the large banner for the Condo exhibition, featuring one of his bizarre and haunting images, we knew it would be worth the struggle.
Condo, who emerged on the art scene in the early 1980s, has consistently engaged with the history of European and American portrait traditions while imbuing his paintings with a distinctly contemporary comic and cartoon sensibility. The results are equal parts humourous and deeply disturbing. Mental States focuses on the artist’s series of “imaginary portraits” – the subjects of which are of Condo’s own invention – and his often grotesque creations, in the surrealist tradition, manifest the deep psychological trauma of their subjects. While these paintings do not depict real people, his titles – The Stockbroker, The Fallen Butler, Nude Homeless Drinker – evoke familiar archetypes that speak to the turmoil and alienation that characterize our contemporary culture.
In a break from this “imaginary” theme, we were surprised and delighted to see that the exhibition included a series of irreverent portraits of Queen Elizabeth II that Condo produced in 2006. The salon-style floor-to-ceiling installation of paintings that occupied an entire room of the exhibition was also enthralling. Never having seen so much of the artist’s work in one place before, the concentration of imagery was completely overwhelming and mesmerizing. This installation style references Condo’s view that all of his paintings are components of one large work, regardless of artistic style or subject matter. While Condo is best known for his figurative works, the exhibition also includes a selection of paintings in the Cubist tradition that hover between figuration and abstraction. While it may be easy to dismiss Condo’s creations as the product of psychosis or an overactive imagination, these melancholic paintings will haunt you for days. Despite the outlandish imagery, Condo offers an all too real commentary on the frightening state of our contemporary condition.
Image credits: Installation view of George Condo: Mental States, Hayward Gallery, London. Photos by Linda Nylind for Hayward Gallery.