George Condo @ Hayward Gallery

The Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery is currently hosting the first major retrospective of New Yorker George Condo. Showcasing work spanning three decades, beginning in 1982, the appropriately titled ‘Mental States’ juxtaposes raw emotion with the fantastical and grotesque. The show is set out thematically, with three foci: portraiture, abstract figuration and mania and melancholy.

Condo, the artist who solely did all the artwork for Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, celebrates a provocative yet heinous view of life – in his own words it is ‘hideous and yet so utterly real.’ The viewer is first confronted with a set of gold heads followed by a series of nine portraits of the queen; both of which are contradictory to the standard ideals of beauty one would expect when attending an art exhibition, yet they warn of what is to come. Many of Condo’s characters, or caricatures as one may prefer to name them, are extremely alike; condo seems to follow the same formula again and again. He focuses on the emotional rather than the physical, allowing inner feelings to take over the unique features of an individual – a unique way of portraying raw honesty. In paintings like The Butler and Red Antipodular Portrait, Condo creates characters with excess teeth and heads that collapse in on themselves with goggle eyes and gurning faces. The artist himself describes his creatures as ‘antipodal beings’, suggesting they are exact opposites of what should be expected, and Condo does exactly this. He manages to portray the ordinary – secretaries, office workers and janitors – as profoundly unordinary. However at times it felt as though Condo could have been taking this a little far, poking fun at 21st century norms at the next level. He is criticizing our ideals in the way that he depicts our social norms through a distorted lens, twisting our images of everyday life to the extreme.

At one stage we are confronted with a salon style arrangement depicting paintings that span a three-decade long career, showing inspiration from the past. This reference to older influences is apparent throughout the exhibition, with a clear influence from European and American art, the cubism of Picasso, whilst also directly referring to Rembrandt. Another point of interest, are Condo’s painting drawings: large canvases which morph from pencil into paint, full of energetic spins and twists with his characters intertwined inside them.

Condo explains that his scribbles ‘reflect the madness of everyday life.’ He shows us an unsettling concoction of the sublime and grotesque under a glaring 21st century 100watt light bulb. Despite the lack in variation among his characters, the unusual nature of his creations fascinate the viewer, while at times horrifying, the over the top insanity on display can be humorous, if not a little mad.

George Condo: Mental States is on at the Hayward Gallery until January 8, 2012

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and also writes for After Nyne, Ibraaz and Reorient.

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