New York

George Condo

Running the gamut from flabby abstractions and hilariously gloomy vanitas to riffs on Picasso’s various periods, George Condo’s paintings bring an adolescent wit and bizarre morphology to appropriationist painting. His past work has at times been easy to write off as a glib attempt to give painting a quick fix—as an excuse to continue working inside what Condo has called “the living of the death of painting.” While still somewhat disingenuous, the new work adds a dose of authentic anxiety to its pastiche of Surrealist dream imagery. This time around Condo spills the fetid afterbirth of a severe loss of faith into the kind of haunted arena-scapes and shattering silences found in the work of René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí.

The paintings produce hysterical visions—a cardinal looking as much like marzipan as flesh, with waxy lips and insane blue eyes, or a rotten apple bristling with weird mushrooms, crosses, and stuck with a liquor bottle. In Landscape with Repeated Figure, 1993–94, a queue of identical figures—each holding a bottle like a talisman—extends along a high piece of land, eventually floating off into a bright sky, charting a guilty path to a dubious salvation. The Effervescent Pope, 1994, and Pope With Candle, 1993, are blasphemous but unnervingly silly, while Visions of Saint Lucy, 1992–93, is ghoulishly littered with eyeballs that are emblematic of the saint’s besieged faith. That Condo cherishes painting as something sordid is evident as much in his insistence on clumsy drawing and cheesy color as it is in his recasting of art-historical models as images poisoned by memory. His paintings are like an ex-Catholic who keeps reaching for a crucifix.

Painting is a habit that’s difficult to kick; half the fun of it these days lies in reveling in its mediocrity, trying to locate shards of meaning in the dullest facture and the most casually ripped-off imagery. Considering the bitterly wacked-out yet numbed earnestness of Condo’s bad-dream scenes, it’s no surprise that junkie pope William S. Burroughs wrote the hyperbolic catalogue essay—a paean to art as a conduit to life-affirming delirium and radical nihilism. Burroughs’ surprisingly touching rant goes overboard, however, when he invokes Surrealism’s incendiary goals; Condo’s work is too traumatized, or perhaps too disaffected, to approach André Breton’s treasured “superior reality.”

Compelling for their schizoid nature and apparent lack of humanity, these recent works are also poignant because their violence is so random. Although Condo may claim that he both kills and revivifies painting, it would be more accurate to say that he doesn’t so much send painting into pomo rehab as keep chasing the dragon.

K. Marriott Jones