WINNER OF ART & CULTURE ART CRITICISM PRIZE VOLUME IV ANNOUNCED:
We are delighted to announce that Rose McLaren is the winner of Volume IV of the prize with her review of George Condo: Mental States. This edition of the prize was judged by Gareth Harris, Editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper.
Comments from Gareth Harris, judge of the Art & Culture Art Criticism Prize Volume IV:
While the shortlisted entries were excellent and impressive, the review of George Condo: Mental States at London’s Hayward Gallery stood out as the best read by far. Unpicking Condo’s art is daunting but the review made me see that the show is “more subtle and curious” than other commentators suggest. Its argument, that “Condo found new ways to make ugly, funny paintings”, hangs together. The piece is punchy, comprehensible and accessible with a resolute and provocative voice, its assertions on Condo’s style, philosophy and technique delivered with confidence and authority; an engaging, even entertaining, winner of the writing award.
Winner: Review by Rose McLaren
George Condo: Mental States
Hayward Gallery, London
Tuesday 18 October 2011 – Sunday 8 January 2012
Click HERE for more information
Mental States is The Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition of George Condo’s work. The title sensationalizes, as many critics have, Condo’s reflections on human psychology. However, the show is more subtle and curious than this generalised appraisal of his successes suggests. Through carefully charting his career, it reveals how style and tone underpin his practice and enable him to engage the viewer in an original, humane and direct manner.
Condo dismisses the dry academia of aesthetics or moral mewling that dogs so much ‘ugly painting’. Instead, he makes ugliness in art a matter of bathos. Take, for example, The Infernal Rage of Rodrigo (2008). The converging accents of brows and cock conflate noble and base, with the phallus flagging up the low source of lofty rage. But it’s not just a joke on tragic anger. The mess of eyes, brows, mouth and genitals presents us with an internal war of appetites and emotions. This transcends the title’s Shakespearean reference and doubles as an abstract face of contemporary culture, stimulated to a pitch of paranoia, arousal and greed.
However heavy this might sound, the painting looks lighter; it pictures this horror through a buffoonery that the viewer can relate to. It elicits an intelligent comic response that involves us intellectually and emotionally. Furthermore, while Condo’s characters are grotesque; unlike, say, the Chapmans’ creations, they aren’t wholly serious about it. Their ugliness is not meant to patronise the gallery-goer as a pillar of conservative ideals. Condo’s characters look so unwittingly, rather than intentionally, ugly that the fact becomes irrelevant and the effect more important- how their ugliness makes us think about visual language and the human condition. In this way, Condo moves the aesthetics of ugliness beyond the surface, and in particular beyond the superficial politics of offense that characterised YBA shock-tactics. Stuck on one level, those radical one-liners quickly became self-mockingly smug and tedious.
A particular success of this exhibition is that it showcases Condo’s variety of styles and tones. The central room imitates the floor-to-ceiling salon hang to display an assortment of epic, surreal, classical and cartoonish portraits. Although his ability to straddle Old Master and Looney Toon figuration is impressive, the room is too much a showcase of tricks. More interesting is his grasp of the meanings behind various painterly poses, as evidenced in the more considered later works. For example, in the penultimate room, The Way we Were (2008) acts as both a critique of wealth and glamour, and of the sanctimony of criticising either. The title and date reference the boom-bust history of the past two decades as performed by the debagged, felled capitalist in the painting. However, while the waitress is still standing, her client’s on the floor, leaving her rather lost. The composition destabilizes any singular political stance, as does the combination of expressionist, caricature, cartoon and abstract effects. These convey a range of reactions to a social situation. This gives Condo an edge on the likes of Paul McCarthy, whose Pig Island, while an impressively powerful reaction to politics, is unambiguous to the point of didacticism.
Opposite The Way We Were, Nude Homeless Drinker (1999) packs its punch by not being clever or funny, simply a stark image of automated misery. Then we have the wit of Jesus (2002) and The Executive (2003). Flanking the exit, they read across each other, united by the dangling carrot symbolism; the executive’s pursuit of wealth and power becomes as ridiculous as the vegetal Christ’s crusade. As parodied gatekeepers of parodied ideals, they reflect in turn on what paintings are and on our pilgrimmage through the gallery.
In the last room, Lunatic (2008) and Property of a Lunatic (2011), a sculpture and painting, respectively, make my favourite comedy pair. Condo made a bust of a psychopath and years later gifted it with a still life. It’s a great example of absurdity alleviating the tragic insanity he investigates, but it’s also a wonderful whimsy and a good joke about pieces of art: nonsensical objects we give to the madmen in our heads.
Perhaps the key to Condo’s talent is catching us all off guard. Grotesque humour became dangerously cliché through the eighties and nineties, but through sifting the history of his medium, Condo has found new ways to make ugly, funny paintings. They afford an insight into what we share as people and the language through which we share it. By carefully guiding us through George Condo’s erratic progress, ‘Mental States’ reveals the surprisingly uplifting honesty behind the clown’s psycho-mask.