Funny, Elegant, And Frightening

George Condo on notions of taste and the purpose of painting

George Condo (b. 1957) has been making provocative paintings since the ‘80s. He has always played around with and manipulated the European traditions of painting. This has taken the form of Post Modernist visual cant, funny jokes about Picasso, and drawings that ape as well as pay homage to the modernist tradition. He has also influenced younger artists, many without his finesse.

His current show, “Existential Portraits,” continues in this vein with a series of portraits that are funny, elegant, and sometimes outright frightening. The whole of the European history of painting is fair game for Condo’s portraits, here presented in faux gilt frames that serve to enforce their serious side as well as complete the parody of an arcane studio practice. In the process, a new hybrid form comes into being.

All of the portraits are full of signs that define the character of the subject. “Young Architect” is loquacious (the open mouth) and idealistic (the lurid sky). Jean Louis, whoever that may be, is represented by a portrait, as are his butler, wife, wife’s sister, brother, and grandmother, thus creating a rather well rounded picture of Jean Louis, his position in life, and the characters that surround him. This is the kind of project that Goya may have undertaken.

Another Goyaesque trope is the inclusion of two Maja paintings,”Maja Vestida” (clothed) and “ Maja Desnuda” (unclothed). Maja, in this case, is not an innocent or particularly peaceful type. With the toothy, big-eared ignorance of a rapacious predator, she holds a cigarette in her spidery fingers. A lot of these characters are possessed of toothy big-eared ignorance and sometimes a delirious rage, and very often booze and cigarettes. This kind of boldness in depiction of the follies of humanity is also Goyaesque.

Sometimes the paint handling is abbreviated and reminiscent of Francis Bacon and the fractured vision of a post cubist Picasso is often employed. “Three Figures in a Garden” and “Symphony I” are virtuosic and terrifying pictures in the plein aire and theatrical genres. This is exactly the kind of painting that I think that I don’t or shouldn’t like. However over the past several years I’ve found myself strangely drawn to Condo’s work. This show is a carefully thought out assault on notions of taste and the purpose of painting. I’m happy to stand corrected and instructed as well.

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