George Condo is grotesque. In “The Way I Think,” an exhibit of drawings and sketches by the American contemporary visual artist are showing now at the Phillips Collection, vicious smiles leer from jumbled canvases as reds and blacks clash in rough forms.
Human figures become monstrous in Condo’s various portraits. His drawn faces, such as those in “Double Head Drawing 10” (2015), are at once cartoonish and animalistic. Oversized chins jut upward into the face and beady black eyes stare out at nothing. Bankers and scantily clad maids populate these compositions, as well as amorphous figures assembled from discarded machines and limbs.
By mashing these objects together, Condo achieves a unique and marvelous description of the emotional states governing the human mind. The beauty of the artist’s work and the meaning of his gestures lie behind these grotesqueries as Condo systematically recreates reality.
Most people who wander in and see his work do not seem to like it much. Frowning or apathetic, they look at the walls briefly, before moving on to more familiar rooms of gentler hues. But despite his unique style, Condo firmly inhibits a tradition which stretches back to the very beginning of western art.
“Some of his biggest influences are Dürer, Cubism, Picasso, and American Pop culture,” Klaus Ottmann, Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs at the Phillips Collection, wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Ottman said Condo synthesizes “a broad range of art-historical styles” in his drawings, borrowing from old masters and modernist trailblazers alike. When one looks at the odd faces in his portraits, these influences become clear. Gruesome figures are structured with close attention to proportion, drawing on 16th-century Dutch and Venetian portraiture.
However, 20th-century abstract expressionism and pop art have also had a major influence on Condo. Unlike his precursors, who sought simply to replicate reality in their paintings, Condo “often infects [representational drawings] with abstract or abstract-expressionist elements into a highly unique style,” according to Ottman. As in the merged and jumbled forms in his drawings, Condo combines elements from different styles to create his uniquely disturbing compositions.
But as Condo synthesizes disparate techniques, he keeps a singular purpose in mind. Depicting reality in constant reference to the subjective human experience, Condo captures the jagged confines of the human psyche. He calls his philosophy “psychological Cubism,” or “psychological realism,” through which he seeks to authentically represent the emotional and mental lives of modern people.
“Unlike the Cubism invented by Picasso and Braque, which attempts to represent three-dimensional objects in two-dimensions by merging different perspectives into one, Condo focuses on ‘mental states,’ different emotions, and psychological conditions that he attempts to represent by merging them into each other,” Ottman said in an email to The Hoya.
The faces in Condo’s portraits hang with rough lines and deep pathos, expressing the turbulent mental states of his subjects. Not settling with simply copying visual reality, Condo goes further in trying to represent the vivid mental world which all humans inhabit. To achieve this effect, Condo does not give in to sentimentality and instead emphasizes the artificiality of his drawings. As Condo described in his 1988 manifesto “Notes on Artificial Realism,” “an object that was real is made artificial in order to bring it back to reality.”
To understand the subjective experience of the mind, it is not enough to illustrate a scene and pretend that it accurately captures reality. While Condo’s paintings remain artificial, these synthetic representations are treated as real and therefore become authentic. By recreating emotional realities in grotesque, crowded and patently unreal forms, Condo seeks to reach a new standard of artistic truth that is both honest and effective in describing the subjective reality of the mind. Psychological Cubism means “[d]ismantling one reality and constructing another from the same parts.”
Watching Condo’s drawings, one cannot help but feel he has succeeded. At first, there is disgust. But after a few minutes of inspection, the works take on a different light. The misshapen eyes of an inhuman head begin to describe the state of a real person. Their strange moods, phobias, hatreds, lusts and fantasies range scattered over the canvas, describing a mind that is not pleasant, but human.
Condo is not afraid to touch on the ugliness and nuance of modern life, as his crowd in “Red and Black Compression” (2011) or capitalist winks in “The Happy Banker” (2010) demonstrate. In his odd and eerie drawings, a strange beauty emerges. The mind does not have to be feared or ignored, but can be celebrated in all its authentic artificiality. George Condo’s strange and wonderful drawings call on viewers to imagine the mind differently and to accept our own emotional states in all their peculiarity, grotesqueness and beauty.
“George Condo: The Way I Think” will be exhibited at the Phillips Collection until June 25th and is open for free admission Tuesday through Friday.