Of all the painters of the human form, few opt to show its disquieting – dare we say it – ugly sides, in favour of beauty, but would our appreciation of portraiture be what it is without the uncompromising gaze of Rembrandt and Francis Bacon? We think not! All the harmonious curves, gentle smiles and symmetrical features rendered by countless other artists do not come close to the memorable impact of the bulbous noses, folds of flesh and warped faces created by artists who see the evocative power of human imperfection. Somehow, the close unflinching examination of flaws is something that we can relate to on an immediate level whereas the admiration of perfection is more passive, more distant, less affecting.
There is no denying that painter George Condo’s first major retrospective presents a collection of works that confronts us with the most distorted, surreal and terrifying side of our humanity. Did we also mention that they are about as hilarious as they are alarming?
Curated in accordance to a thematic approach, Mental States, at the Hayward gallery, provides a conceptual environment for each and every one of his characters, from the Screaming Priest to Big Red. The first impression is rather tame and reassuring as a series of sculptures of golden heads ushers you along a corridor and into the gallery space. His sculptures are somewhat less striking than his paintings, the additional dimension taking away from the otherworldliness of the impossibly jutting chins and missing eyes. Yet the challenges await at the very end of this corridor with a series of nine more or less mutated portraits of the Queen, Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen. Condo is not scared to deconstruct any image, from the clergy to the royalty, no one is out of bounds.
If you’re not laughing yet, you will as soon as you enter the gallery space dedicated to portraiture. The portraits range from fairly realistic representations of men and women with slight disquieting effects (one eye significantly bigger than the other, a very small head on a big body, a nose that looks like it belongs on a different head altogether) to completely animalistic and fantastic creatures posing in accordance to the classic iconography of portraiture.
This whole menagerie is hung in an old-fashioned “salon style” that is now rarely seen, safe for some more conservative art institutions such as the National Gallery. This approach highlights both the absurdity of the paintings as well as the many art historical references that Condo slips into his work. The space dedicated to abstract-figuration does not have as powerful an impact. The paintings are all on a large scale but, instead of making one strong individual statement, they are covered in sprawling details that require sustained examination.
Finally the Mania and Melancholy gallery is where you will find the most recent and the most disturbing work. Created in the late 1990s and 2000s these works stand as allegories for out troubled times. In Uncle Joe, a man lies on his back, his genitals exposed, a bottle of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There are soap bubbles floating about him, the grass and blue sky hint more at a bucolic picnic than at a bout of drunken exhibitionism. Yet, the expression on his face is priceless: it’s a truly savage grin slicing his face from ear to ear. Screaming Priest, both an homage to Francis Bacon and a representation of the organised religion’s scandals, and Nude Homeless Drinker evoke the same dissolution of social propriety and dignity. They are both terrifying and liberating. As Condo himself states: “They may not be pretty but I think we can all see ourselves in these pictures; they are so hideous and yet so utterly real.”
You could be forgiven after all that “reality” to want a bit of escapism and, conveniently enough, you can find it on the lower level of the Hayward in the form of Pipilotti Rist’s Eyeball Massage.