George Condo's Beautiful Dark Towering Fantasies

02/02/2011 6:00 AM |

We know George Condo first and foremost by the portraits he's painted at a staggering rate since the early-80s, often touching on distinctive art historical styles—Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, etc.—all the while honing his unique figurative approach, a cute-beautiful-grottesque-funny mix of Francis Bacon grimaces, Disney eyes, chipmunk cheeks, lumpy bodies and saturated oil tones. Unfortunately, more than 40 of these tortured figures have to share one massive wall on the New Museum's fourth floor in the institution's two-level mid-career retrospective of the New York-based artist's work, Mental States (through May 8), emphasizing a chameleon-like career while hiding the details of individual works.

The hanging, an allusion to a similarly-arranged 1985 exhibition of Condo's work in Zurich, privileges one reading of his oeuvre—the ongoing development of his trademark aesthetic all the while hopping between historical schools and styles—at the expense of any kind of up-close and specific appreciation of the many incredible works collected here. The paintings in this section, "Portraiture," range in size from eight inches to ten feet tall, spanning his entire career, and while a few incredible pieces at eye-level stand out—the massive Picasso homage "Spanish Head Composition" (1988), the Tim Burton-esque "The Executioner" (1984), the monstrous woman in "Memories of Rembrandt" (1994)—many more are lost in the sprawling salon-style presentation. It implies an accumulative evaluation of Condo's work, as though the sheer breadth and number of his output were more significant than the individual pieces' sophistication. The awing display underlines the artist's non-linear thematic samplings, but mutes his very substantial formal development.

For the exhibition's stronger and more intimate section take the narrow rear stairs down one flight, pausing mid-stairwell to observe the meticulous and controlled pencil markings in an untitled piece by 18-year-old Condo and the roughly manipulated textures of a recent bust in polished bronze. The museum's third floor has been partitioned into a series of more conventional galleries that do better justice to the individual paintings. These are divided between more of his figurative output—largely from the last decade—and the exhibition's unexpected triumph, a large room of massive abstract compositions. Even here the museum's awkward galleries interfere, with one large piece stuck facing the elevators, lost to foot traffic.

The large mixed media abstractions resemble furious webs with tiny fragments of Condo figures trapped inside them: a foot here, a mouth there, some cartoonish animal dissolving into the backdrop, the filled-in details of a face alongside a jumble of frantic lines. The most recent pieces, like "Figures in a Garden" (2010), have a crowded, unfinished look, like drunken sketches from a half-remembered party. This lends them a remarkably different energy from the mad howls and plaintive moans of his figurative paintings, more like the seductive chatter of a Toulouse-Lautrec nightclub scene.

The third floor's figurative paintings, organized to reflect themes of melancholy, madness and social commentary, reward close viewing. In "The Secretary" (1998), for instance, a blue-faced woman sports a teddy bear-like smirk whose white teeth seem to dissolve into the star-speckled sky behind her. In "Jesus" (2002), a thorn-crowned, cone-headed figure with flowing brown locks appears terrified and on the verge of tears. The sorrow in this room turns to anger in the next, whose centerpiece, "The Return of Client No. 9" (2008), turns a well-publicized sexual encounter into a mid-coitus suicide ritual—one that Condo reprised in a similarly notorious album cover last year.

These works demonstrate what co-curator Laura Hoptman (along with Ralph Rugoff of London's Hayward Gallery) articulated during an exhibition preview: that Condo alludes to various aesthetic precedents "not for purposes of appropriation, but of challenging the Masters in their own arena." With Mental States he emerges victorious from that challenge time and again, even if the arena is much bigger than it needed to be.

(images courtesy the artist, New Museum for Contemporary Art)