George Condo: interview
Time Out talks portraits, Prince Charles and Pod people with influential New York maverick George Condo
Before meeting him, I’d long been unsure what to make of George Condo, with his fearsome, snarling canvases and glaring bug-eyed cartoon characters. On the one hand, his work can be unremittingly ugly and sometimes just plain bad; on the other, there are moments of painterly flair and surreal beauty, when I can’t seem to drag my eyes away from a grinning monster or some dreamy clouds in the background.
I needed to understand why so many younger artists were fans of the 50-year-old’s work – admirers include American artists John Currin and Dana Schutz as well as Glenn Brown and the Chapman Brothers over here, all of whom owe something to Condo’s crazy cast of critters that are inappropriately dripping in art history. I also had to know whether his lurid past spent hanging out with Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac somehow allowed him to bypass the rocky road to art-world acceptance or whether he had truly earned his place near the top of the tree of influence.
‘Being a young artist in the early ’80s was an uphill battle. There was a lot of pressure to work big – like Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel and David Salle – but a signature style was something I rebelled against.’ After the high times of New York, Condo switched to Paris, where he learnt the traditions of painting first-hand by copying Raphaels in the Louvre: ‘It brought me back to figure painting, which wasn’t fashionable at the time.’ He would set up and paint on the coffee-table in his hotel with a glass of wine: ‘In one place, I would come back every day and find the curtains drawn, and the maid said “We didn’t want to get the sunlight on the canvases.” In New York, they would just throw them out the window.’
Long after his friends Haring and Basquiat’s graffiti-tinged, signature styles burned out, Condo returned to New York, and has been applying the lost arts of the Old Masters to his toothy, pin-headed creations ever since.
Among the bogeymen in Condo’s latest London show (the clown-faced actor with Hamlet’s dagger stuck painfully in the square of his back, a drunk uncle with protruding phallus, the reclining but angrily upright women throwing rocks or sporting wooden legs) is something of a departure for him: a self-portrait. This ‘Smiling Sea Captain’ work refers specifically to the media reaction surrounding his last London visit when he painted a portrait of HM the Queen to hang in the Wrong Gallery at Tate Modern. Condo claims the picture ‘has the ability to make you smile, which she seems to have in real life’, but it was met with all sorts of outraged Daily Mail headlines such as ‘Queen Portrayed As Toothless Cabbage Patch Doll’.
‘Despite the harpoon through his chest, and this carrot dangling in front of him,’ says Condo of his self-portrait alter ego, ‘and against all odds, the sea captain is still smiling.’ Although the papers insinuated otherwise, Condo harbours no ill will towards the royal family, adding ‘I came to the conclusion that Prince Charles should run for President – we’d be better off.’
Mostly his subject matter is imagined, and in the early ’90s Condo began to call his creations ‘Pod people’ after reading about Aldous Huxley’s antipodal beings in ‘The Doors of Perception’; peripheral but independent entities that he believed lived in our brains and could only surface or be tapped into through the language of art (or perhaps mescaline). All of these ‘Pods’ – including the Queen – wear an expression that ‘goes between a scream and a smile,’ says Condo, ‘that reflects simultaneous emotions or conversations with the conflicting voices in your head.’ This ‘psychological cubism’, as he calls it, parallels our ability to channel-hop through increasingly fractured visual information and ‘exploits our own imperfections – the private, off-moments or unseen aspects of humanity – that often give way to some of painting’s most beautiful moments’.
The Surrealist dictum that ‘beauty will be convulsive or not all’ is perhaps the best way to approach Condo’s nerve-jangling work because, he says, ‘I like people to walk into one of my exhibitions and say “What happened?” ’ So, as with many previous interviews with artists, I left more confused than when I went in, but those damned clown Pods haven’t stopped following me yet.
George Condo is at Simon Lee Gallery February 7-April 21.
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