Thursday, April 7, 2011
George Condo at the New Museum
Like currency, novelty is subject to the laws of inflation, loosing value over time in proportion with the amount of "it" in circulation. Perhaps, no other New York institution is as keenly aware of this fact as the New Museum. Inside its walls, the depreciation of the new is not a problem but an operating premise. This sensibility is echoed by the interior which reminds one of nothing so much as any number of anonymous Chelsea art galleries stacked atop each other like a heap of windowless shoe boxes. Complete with white walls, high ceilings and the ubiquitous concrete floor, even the rectilinear proportions of these spaces seem to echo their gallery world counterparts. It's as though the museum is really just a larger extension of the commercial art world that exists on the west side of Manhattan between 18th and 28th streets. A highbrow wormhole that connects Chelsea and the Lower East Side through the dubious conduit of meretricious art. One wonders if a better name would have been the "Now Museum".
In light of this, it's no wonder that the current George Condo retrospective feels less like a major survey than three gallery shows conflated in to one exhibition. Never the less, Condo is perhaps the ideal artist to show at the New Museum. His work looks forwards and back in equal measure always reminding us that, as Nabakov says, "the future is only the past in reverse".
It is this slippery relationship with the past that serves as Condo's primary point of departure. His paintings are self conscious in the best possible way. Mocking the very sources they pay homage to, then satirizes this very mockery as being derivative while all the while implying that there is really no such thing. It's a highly literate game of "I know that you know, that I know that you know...". A nod and a wink that one feels Condo can continue ad infenitum. I'm reminded of Frederich von Schlegel's concept of romantic irony, which advocates self-parody and artifice as a way of achieving the spiritual buoyancy needed to overcome the absurdity and chaos of life. Brecht's theater of the real also comes to mind. In an online interview conducted for the opening of the show, Condo invokes another influence when discussing his work. "A thing is everything it is not" he quotes Heidegger (who is himself discussing ancient Greek philosophy). Condo continues to explain that what really interests him is the way things are individuated, those messy areas that separate one thing from another and the perceptual systems we use to turn those distinctions in to historical canons. If a thing is everything its not, then how can you possibly know everything its not in order to know it. Or, as Condo puts it;
"To try to find a way to define the appearance of a singular thing through the presencing of numerous other things, other variations of things, other metamorphoses of images"
But what is Condo "defining", what is the "thing" he is trying to presence? Is it the character creatures that populate his paintings like the cast members of some deranged sitcom? Is it the idea of style, a thing like any other that exists more in concept than in actuality? Is it the notion of the gestalt that, like some magic taboo, once broken releases primordial energy that renders the very idea of history obsolete?
I'm not really sure one way or the other, and I'm not a hundred percent certain that Condo does either. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, I think Condo is an aesthetic polyglot who operates out of a compulsion to create. His multivalent sensibility finds apogee around ideas of collapse, distortion, mutation and fragmentation. It's a tragi-comic playfulness that works best when seen together, as in the salon style hang of over 40 paintings that dominate the first room of the show. As a group, these works are a force to be reckoned with, (in subsequent galleries the paintings hang side by side which makes them appear conventional, denuding their uncanny weirdness). I'm drawn to the heedless abundance of energy that these works presence. It's an infectious creative outpouring. But, I don't know if I completely buy in to the wall text's claims that the paintings, "conjure a world of decayed beliefs, failed mythologies and anomie". This sounds a bit grandiloquent. These paintings aren't lugubrious, and I don’t think their aim is to make some grand statement about life in the 21st century, or to try and show a crumbling society how it has lost it's way.
Instead, I think they are what much contemporary culture is becoming, a mash up of memes, swirling patterns, desperate agglomerations. Masses of cultural flotsam caught in a perpetual state of synthesis and collapse. For Condo history is not some ossified remnant seen inside a bell jar, but a fountain of youth. A giant, nutrient rich kombucha mushroom that, when properly fermented yields a potent, mind altering elixir. At their best, Condo's paintings make this elixir seem like a nostrum, at their worst it feels like just another batch of contemporary snake oil. Luckily, most of the works in the show are of the former variety.