Art isn't timeless. It is emotive, and though a lot of it has lasted a while, its relevance changes with the values of our culture. It even changes in relation to current trends.
Few shows have made me more aware of this durability issue than figurative painter George Condo's New Museum retrospective Mental States (through May 8). Not fifteen years ago, Condo was an influence on seemingly countless artists, amongst them John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and eventually, I would guess, even Dana Schutz. Today the reach of his influence has slowed considerably with the waning interest in figuration.
Dips in influence like this happen all the time, but this exhibition coinciding with a popular downturn meant I was less willing to forgive Condo's weaknesses than I was even a few years ago. And so, while the great salon-style wall on the fourth floor brilliantly provides an overview of the artist's career at a glance, I harped on the number of fucked-up faces with big teeth he produces. I've seen them too many times over the past ten years.
I was also bored with most of Condo's art-historical references to artists like Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly and Rufino Tamayo, though, at their best, they transcend this. They also move past the spectacle implicit in many grotesque works. Take the artist's Lucian Freud-like monster Queen with a monocle eyeball, which in Condo's hands is not so much creepy as it is strange. This is a good quality, as the painted forms are unexpected: Her hair, painted rigidly, resembles floor molding and the night sky lit with confetti. Condo titles the work "The Insane Queen" (2006), which, while a little leading for my tastes, is not nearly his worst. "Memories of Rembrandt" (1994), a title that sounds suspiciously like the name of a salad dressing, tops my list. The painting uses Rembrandt's palette and composition from the portrait "Man in a Gold Helmet," but adds at least ten more eyes.
Condo's strongest work is one floor down. A family portrait gone wrong titled "Stockbroker" (2002) depicts a couple with shrunken heads and big ears, and is undoubtedly the most compelling image of the show. In part, the painting works because it so successfully reproduces generic photography while maintaining its painterly qualities. A small raggedy doll held by the female figure adds to the viewer's discomfort. Similarly disturbing qualities are present in a nearby painting that depicts a man lying in a patch of grass with a tiny erection, and two neighboring paintings in which a couple enjoys—or perhaps suffers through—a session of violent couch sex. The lines of a cube running through the more notable of the two pay homage to Francis Bacon, an unfortunate reference because it reminds us of what these paintings fail to evoke successfully: palpable anxiety. No one tops Bacon on this.
In truth, though, Condo rarely transcends his references. This is particularly evident in the last room of the show, where "Female Figure Composition" (2009), a static image of countless nudes, dominates the back wall. The work evokes Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, to mention only the oldest, most obvious allusions. It's a sad note to end on, driving home the feeling that the show feels past its expiration date, despite its many virtues.
(images courtesy the artist, New Museum)