NEW MUSEUM | JANUARY 26, 2010 – MAY 8, 2011
Watchers of stock markets and world governments these days well understand the word “volatile.” Increasingly, patrons of the New York arts must patiently apply this term to the ever-inconsistent New Museum. While the recent Brion Gysin show was an “epic” success, George Condo’s Mental States exhibition is, until the end, an uneven, “epic” failure.
Mental States begins, deceptively, impressively. The floor-to-ceiling, dramatically-lit concentration of 46 portraits on the single wall opposite the elevators (other walls bare, except for a case of gilded, rough-hewn heads) is organizationally brilliant, creating a “wow” effect when the viewer enters the space. The portraits themselves are a different story.
Condo, a friend of two late icons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, seems to be hoping that the visual devices (birth-defective facial teeth, elephantine cauliflower ears) in his Mr. Potato Head®-derived portraits will catch on like the Smiley Face. And so, apparently, they have, with Condo in his métier as an interracial porn cartoonist-cum-Wal-Mart provocateur, commissioned by recording artist Kanye West for his platinum effort, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Condo’s portraits are distinguished by their antique and low culture models: historical portraits ranging from 17th century Diego Velázquez to 20th century Pablo Picasso semi-abstractions, and velvet clown art. The best—two faux Picassos—are imitations, walking shadows. The titles, such as “The Return of Madame Cezanne,” do have dry humor: “The Psychoanalytical Puppeteer Losing His Mind,” pretty much sums up a reasonable conclusion one might draw about Condo, or his hipster mindbent posture à la Jim Nutt, H. C. Westermann, Francis Bacon, Francisco Goya, Adolf Wolfli, and other psychologically provocative artists.
A word about process. While Velázquez and Goya painted real people from real life, Condo’s portraits require no humans, no inconvenient social interaction, no coherent symbolism. Which leads to speculation about his state of mind and the psychological motivation behind non-portrait portraits, distorted human physiognomy, and simulated developmental disorders. Perhaps Condo is unempathic, misanthropic. Some portraits, executed early in Condo’s career, are understandable as studies; recent homages are less credible.
The opposing wall’s imaginary heads, said to be derived from classical models, belie their obvious association to Alberto Giacometti’s crude-sophisticated sculptures. Built of thumb-sized globs of later cast clay, they radiate a lambent metallic patina in the gallery’s subdued light. While they look like they would be fun to make, they lack originality and distinctiveness.
In the end, it may be that the portrait wall arrangement is impractical: The sheer number of paintings is mentally exhausting, too much to take in, with no chance to study the works mounted high on the wall. More likely, the portraits fail because they signify nothing, aesthetically or culturally: prolific output does not mitigate vacuity. Condo’s cartoon eyes are even less interesting than the televised originals, while his treatments pale compared to those of Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Hamilton.
Condo’s case is not aided by curatorial commentary. The captions of Mental States are pompous and hyperbolic. It’s quite possible, given their attributive subtext, that they accurately relay Condo’s addled perspectives on life and art. The most egregious, “Melancholia,” might as well be the list of synonyms in that word’s thesaurus entry: “bathos,” “crushing despair,” “maudlin,” and “sense of inadequacy,” or, as Condo himself is quoted saying, “fractions of humanity battling extinction.” One of the portraits in this room, “The Executive,” is of a pinstriped, hair-slicked human rodent with a small dangling carrot that utterly misses, and thus trivializes, the scale of executive compensation today: It’s a vatful of gigantic, solid-gold Miracle-Gro® carrot zeppelins, and executives’ mouths are crammed. George Grosz would’ve got this right.
The last room, containing both early and current art, has Condo’s best work. “Big Red Jam” (1992) is a work of calligraphic genius, with black and white abstract and concrete elements dancing on a pomegranate ground. In this work, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Cy Twombly, and Gysin meet John Gnagy’s “Learn to Draw” in a composition offering an infinitude of imagination-firing permutations. “Black and White Abstraction” (2005) is a Twombly/Basquiat Modern Art 101 chalkboard layup, inherently appealing, if entirely vapid. Less successful is “Dancing to Miles” (1985-6), a horror vacui vomitus in inappropriate earthtones, reminding the viewer of just how great the identically paletted French Cro-Magnon cave paintings are.
The final pieces in Mental States are stellar and magnetic, indicating that Condo is moving beyond simpering monomania to technical transcendence, that he is just now hitting stride as an artist. A trio of large canvases (2009-2010) based on Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and other Picassos, are bold, white lead layered excrescences of curvy tits and ass in a restless sweep of don’t-try-this-at-home styles. They are of perfect scale, formally complex, and aesthetically breathtaking, presenting chameleonic imagery and geometries. If they are an indication of Condo’s future direction, it will only be up, at last.