Walking through Skarstedt gallery's new George Condo show in Chelsea, New York, "Double Heads / Black Paintings / Abstractions" (Nov. 8 - Dec. 20) is like entering a painted jungle, where floating eyes peer out from behind a colorful forest of thick paint and chalky pastel. During the press preview, the artist even described one of his new works, Beginnings, in a similar way: "It was like an eye in leaves of the jungle to me, looking through the brush—the brush of some kind of abstraction."
This jungle of eyes—which vary from silver orbs to piercing orange circles—looking out from behind Condo's brushstrokes are the most obvious unifying theme in his new show, which, as the title suggests, is divided up into three sections. The series "Double Heads" expands on his previous paintings of abstracted portraits earlier this year, "Headspace" at Simon Lee Gallery. Instead of single subjects (it's hard to call these strange beings "people"), Condo uses doubles to underscore the alienation between, not only the viewer and the painting, but the figures themselves. Condo's "Black Paintings," which include the exotic Beginnings, use large strokes of black and disjointed body parts to balance a sinister feeling with humor. "Abstractions" move away from figuration even further, relying in silver paint and violent lines applied in a frenzy that mimics Action Painting of the '40s and '50s. Condo painted all of these new canvases this summer while he was holed up in the Hamptons.
Throughout his career, Condo's work has pulled from the techniques of past masters, twisting them until they're nearly unrecognizable. In his distorted forms, you can see Picasso's Cubism and Magritte's Surrealism, yet Condo isn't simply trying to copy his predecessors. In a 2011 New Yorker profile on Condo, Calvin Tomkins stated, "Instead of borrowing images or styles, he used the language of his predecessors, their methods and techniques, and applied them to subjects they never would have painted." For this show, however, Condo is not looking to Europe (although the influences from across the Pond are still present), but closer to home. Speaking of one of the "Black Paintings," titled Emerging, where bold squares of color ring a face with chipmunk cheeks, Condo said, "If I were to straight up paint a painting like that without that figure, it would look like a fake Franz Kline. Everybody always talked about the fake European stuff I did. This is kind of the fake American stuff." By layering Kline's abstract forms over his cartoonish subject, Condo makes the style entirely his own.
In addition to Kline, Condo's work also points to Basquiat. Double Heads on Yellow, Pink, and Silver shows two figures, one that looks like a stick figure ape, and one that share's Jean-Michel Basquiat's wild hairstyle. Condo painted the canvas during August. "Around August 12th, every year, I think of Jean-Michel Basquiat. He died that day. He was a really close friend of mine, so in a way I wanted to do something that sort of felt like his portrait," he said. "It's an abstracted, wild version of him within the context of the idea of two heads that are alienated from one another." It's this ability to both reference the past and stand outside of it that make's Condo's paintings so captivating.
Condo also borrowed from Warhol, using the Pop Art king's silver painting technique on many of his works. "When I was thinking about Jean-Michel, I started thinking about Andy and the days when I worked there and how cool it was as a kid coming into New York that I had that experience. And I was thinking about the Double Elvises, that they're on silver with black, and they way that black paint looks on silver," said Condo. "Basically it's a kind of concept or formula of one style of painting applied to a completely different style of painting."
One of the paintings where Condo used this Warholian formula was Double Portrait in Grisaille on Silver, where a recognizable, yet distorted face hovers on a silver background to the left of a face that makes gestures to Cubism. Condo described the work: "This was supposed to be a normal face and an abstracted face, and then finally somebody came in the studio and said, ironically, the one on the right feels sort of normal in the sense that it's a compilation of Modernist ideas. The one on the left seems more abnormal in the sense that it's supposedly normal." This observation is revealing of Condo's artistic sorcery; while he uses layers of paint and pastels to obscure supposedly "normal" figures, it's the distorted ones that feel less alien. As he aggressively applies his materials to the canvas, abstracted beings with watching eyes begin to emerge.
"The more they get disguised, and the more they fall back into the space of the paint somehow, the more their identity comes through in a strange way and becomes defined," Condo said when I asked about this phenomenon. The process is almost like dark magic, and with a room full of eyes, the effect can be eerie. But somehow, these strange creatures are curiously inviting. As they gaze out at you from their painted hideouts, you can't help but look right back.
George Condo's "Double Heads / Black Paintings / Abstractions" opens today at Skarstedt Chelsea and runs until Dec. 20.