George Condo is hot property right now. His 2011 retrospective ‘Mental States’, shown at the New Museum in New York and London’s Hayward Gallery, drew enormous crowds and received more than its fair share of attention, while last year saw his gargantuan black and white rendering of a court jester draped over the façade of the Metropolitan Opera House to publicise its production of Rigoletto. For further proof of Condo’s current stock, look no further than the patronage accorded him by notoriously shy and retiring showbiz couple Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who respectively commissioned him to decorate an album cover and an Hermès handbag.
Condo’s repertoire of grotesque, hyper-sexualised ‘characters’ have as many up in arms as they do in rapturous genuflection. His consistent appropriation of Cubist, Surrealist and Expressionist motifs is, depending on your view, either clever reference or artistically bankrupt re-hash.
Whatever the case, Condo’s concurrent shows at Skarstedt (who represent him in the US) and the Simon Lee Gallery have been talked up in a big way. The two exhibitions supposedly herald a major shift in the artist’s focus, away from the darkness that has informed his work since the late 1990s – ‘somewhere between landscape and some kind of sexual construction of human physiognomy,’ as he cryptically puts it. This, we’re told, is a major contemporary art event. If that language doesn’t arouse a certain amount of scepticism, you’re a far more tolerant reader than I am.
Does it live up to the billing? Sort of. Neither exhibition will do much to convert Condo’s critics, nor will his (actually very slight) ‘shift in focus’ give cause to upset the fans. The ink drawings at Skarstedt are, apparently, the swan song for his disturbing repertoire of figures. Some of them are genuinely terrifying – lampreyish, inverted idealisations of the female form. They’re also very, very big – this is Condo gone Wagnerian. Even if the reaction is one of pure disgust, it’s impossible to deny that a work like Standing Bather, a huge full-body nude with nightmarishly mangled facial features against a storm of grey and black has a commandingly psychotic authority.
Condo instructs us to look at these works and imagine the figures aren’t there; we are left with profoundly bleak ink homages to Abstract Expressionism, which in the best cases display enough bravado to impress on their own terms. Are these works a howl of primal revulsion or a twice-removed post-modern joke? When they have the ghastly charisma of, say, Mother and Child or The Discarded Human, it doesn’t matter. Not all of them do, though; Female Portrait, a fractured head with what looks like an Albert Gleizes townscape for a mouth, fails to impress; as soon as you’ve identified the reference, the fun is gone.
The Simon Lee Gallery has drawn the short straw with its show of more recent tableaux. There are (literal) strokes of brilliance – Condo is, in a technical sense, an extremely skilled painter. But the latest work is also rather dull. Essentially, it’s the same smash and grab of Cubist tropes, in brighter colours. But while the best of the ink drawings have enough drama to make something powerful of their acknowledged references to Goya, Bacon and Rothko et al, these feel as though they add up to less than the sum of their parts.
There’s the odd space where Condo’s technique stands out – where the acrylic and pastels merge to form swirling fogs of colour and texture, as at the bottom right-hand corner of Heading Out – but the overall effect rarely transcends pastiche. ‘The only way for me to feel the difference between every other artist and me is to use every artist to become me,’ Condo has said of his logjam of stylistic appropriation. Fair enough, but when, as in this instance, the ‘me’ is so manifestly less interesting than what informs it, you’ve got to ask yourself how wise an approach this is.
There is a lot to look at – and some of it goes a long way to explaining Condo-mania. But not all of it is worth the while. To paraphrase Kanye West’s 1980s forebears Public Enemy, don’t believe the hype entirely.
‘George Condo’ is at Simon Lee Gallery, London from 11 February–22 March 2014.
‘George Condo: Ink Drawings’ is at Skarstedt Galley, London from 11 February–5 April 2014.