Chicago

Miguel Conde

Young-Hoffman Gallery

For an artist who traffics in the grotesque, Miguel Conde is remarkably restrained. He is no Jim Nutt whose glibness reeks of the horrors he pictures, nor does his work seem bitter or resigned. Indeed, its strong quality is that the button-eyed, stump-fingered, split-headed characters can look so matter-of-fact. For one thing, Conde is totally in control technically. Every one of the works on exhibition—pen-and-ink or ink and gouache drawings done from 1973 to 1977—is scrupulously made. In a half-square-inch area of a typical head I counted four different colors and ten separate types of pen mark. The impression of debauchery is mitigated by Conde’s studious craftsmanship; significantly too, such technical means allow the work to be visual, rather than hyper-moralistic or rhetorical.

As for what concerns Conde himself, none of his works has any title, though several permeating “themes” recur throughout the work. The most striking is that of a carnival atmosphere—gay colors; folks tooting horns; hats askew; neckerchiefs like clown bibs. So what if the most grotesque heads are not connected to necks, or if a blur of polka-dotted robes makes hazy reference to some bloody memory, or if a bowl of fruit is shaped the same as a matron’s diseased nose? Why worry? No use being grim. It is just this “lightheartedness” that Bosch or Bruegel injected into combinations of human and non-human figures, and that constituted the early meaning of “grotesque.” The visions could be both improper and content.

Conde’s characters often look both charitably kind and pathetically stupid. Raising a tentacled finger, they seem to ask, What means this life? A five-nostrilled child, the progeny of an old three-eyed grandma, makes his caress like some gentle baby Jesus, while friendly trees lean toward each other, echoing love, in the rear. Central figures, around whom others cluster, are deep in shadow, with dots and hatches inside their heads simulating now some strange animal, now a vibrating bone structure. An old woman smokes a pipe that emits polka-dotted smoke.

It may seem hypocritical for Conde to claim concern for human life and, simultaneously, so aptly to portray deviation. Indeed, work like this is disturbing because it contains no rules for its own interpretation, no guidelines on how to react. No one wants to confront the fact that three-eyed grandmas may be more prevalent than marble goddesses. And to make matters worse, Conde is blasé. He doesn’t tell you: “This is un-American, don’t let your children look”; or, “Now, I’m going to show you something bad”; or, “Isn’t it fun to offend?” Rather, he just hands it to us without comment. None seems needed.

C. L. Morrison