Bugs Bunny in Picassoworld: George Condo’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy

It was almost too strange to be true: the guy staring at George Condo‘s paintings was actually wearing a green Looney Tunes polo. Merely a coincidence. But one could suspect fans of those animated cartoons to like the paintings by this American artist. To me it often looks as if Bugs Bunny has ended up in a Francis Bacon or a Picasso. The Condo retrospective in Rotterdam (Booijmans Van Beuningen) is closing its doors on September 25. But for those of you planning to go to London for Gerhard Richter (Tate Modern), Postmodernism (V&A) or Pipilotti Rist (Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre), Condo’s Mental states will be on show at the Hayward (from October 18). It travels to Frankfurt in 2012.

‘The only thing new today, would be using Old Master language, without the imagery.’ That’s the thought that kickstarted George Condo’s career in ’82, when he was 24. Before that he had worked as a printer for Andy Warhol. ‘There was a new wave of figurative art going on in New York then, with Basquiat, Schnabel, Keith Haring and a few others’, Condo says in The New Yorker, ‘but I didn’t want to be part of that.’

He left for Los Angeles, thinking: ‘I felt I had to come back to New York with a statement that would stand up against Andy Warhol’s soup cans.’  It became The Madonna, made up from his memories of all the Madonnas he had seen. And up to today, it is still the way in which Condo paints: his subjects come straight from his imagination, even though Condo paints a lot of portraits, landscapes and figure studies. ‘Portraits are also kind of abstract paintings in that the portrait itself is just a skeleton in which abstraction and transformation take place’, Condo told The Huffington Post. (Probably the most wonderful part of the exhibition? The salon-style hanging of a lot of those portraits on one wall.)

Condo – who was very close to Basquiat, Haring and Allen Ginsberg, and who lived in Paris from ’85 to ’95 before returning to NY – is probably most known for his ‘artifical realism’, a term he invented himself: ‘the realistic representation of that which is artificial’. And for his ‘antipodular’ creatures, ‘living at the antipodes of everyday consciousness’. An idea he took from Aldous Huxley’s Heaven and hell.  ‘We have them in our head and the only way to access them is through a kind of visionary process’, Condo says. ‘And the artist accesses them somehow naturally and puts them in paintings.’

In the past few years Condo has made tabloid headlines too. First when he presented a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at the Tate Modern, in 2006. And more recently when rapper Kanye West asked Condo to come up with a painting he could use for the cover of his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The cover got banned by a lot of American stores. ‘The superimposition of people’s perceptions on a cartoon is shocking’, Condo said about that in New York Magazine. ‘What’s happening in their minds should be banned. Not the painting.’ In the meanwhile his paintings sell for about $450.000, according to The New Yorker.

And one last word about Mental States, the title of the exhibition?  ‘The idea is that it’s not just the character in the paintings’, Condo explained to The Huffington Post, ‘it’s also going to be about the people who come to see the paintings and what it does to their mental state, to see all these different reflections of humanity, from all walks of life, happening at the same time on the wall.’

 ‘Mental States’ was on show already at the New Museum (New York) and Booijmans-Van Beuningen (Rotterdam). You’ll still be able to see Condo’s paintings at Hayward Gallery, London (Oct 18-Jan 15) and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (Feb 23-May 28, 2010).

Quotes taken from interviews with The Huffington Post (article here) and Art In America (article here). You’ll find The New Yorker profile of George Condo on the site of his gallery (here) and the two parts of a YouTube interview here and here. More about Condo’s five paintings for Kanye West here. Profile in The Independent here.

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