What’s changed since George Condo had his big Hayward Gallery survey in 2011? Evident in this two venue show, as ever, is his humour – a deceptively guileless wit that fleshes out human foibles in such a way that even his most pin-headed, bat-eared nasties seem somehow endearing. His exacting connoisseurship is never in question, either – the best of his large ink drawings at Skarstedt riff on Goya-esque darkness, while the ghosts of Picasso and Willem De Kooning waft through Simon Lee’s gathering of new paintings.
Things have changed in Condo’s life, though, and it’s tempting to read the American artist’s recent illness (last year, he was hospitalised after contracting Legionnaires' disease) as some kind of catalyst for developments in his art, especially since the works at Skarstedt were created before he fell ill and the paintings at Simon Lee made during his recovery. Certainly, the darkest and best of his drawings – a generationally ambiguous ‘Mother and Child’, the genuinely (rather than studiedly) creepy ‘The Prisoner’ – seem to presage some kind of collapse. But Condo’s best work has always had an ‘on the brink’ feel. His new paintings, meanwhile, possess enough searching surface incident to seem like he’s finding form afresh, as with the eyes of a convalescent. Yet, this has also always been an under-appreciated quality of Condo’s art.
So, what’s changed? In truth, not much. We’ve been ‘reading’ this kind of fucked-up portraiture (and enjoying the trippy physiognomic dimension) since Cubism decided to show us the back and front of the head simultaneously a hundred years ago. Condo serves it back up to us time and again, funny and serious, cool and hot, dumb and smart, like we haven’t really moved on. And that’s the comedy and tragedy of his art.