In Girl with Ponytail, George Condo’s towering tour de force from 2009, the artist ingeniously fuses psychological cubism and artificial realism to transcend the confines of traditional portraiture. The blend of the artist’s two best-known techniques rendered in unabashed bold color with unwavering lines ultimately results in a portrait that triggers a viewer’s emotions through its contradictory nature.
George Condo began working as a studio assistant for Andy Warhol in the 1970s and emerged in the 1980s New York art scene alongside contemporaries Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Over the past four decades he has remained committed to figuration and in doing so has developed an adept, singular ability to converge multiple and varied influences of art history into physiologically complex, self-referential and truly compelling canvases. Condo calls this the Theory of Relative Language, “which basically proposes the idea that a single painting can have multiple language properties simultaneously to create a single entity” (The artist in conversation with Ralph Rugoff, George Condo: Existential Portraits, New York 2006, p. 7). Although he uses art historical influences to derive his classical painting technique as he begins with a study of the canvas, first drawing and sketching before applying paint to the composition, he also undermines his predecessors by his unconventional, bold and seemingly other-worldly subject matter. Through his prolific yet ever-shifting creations of uniquely distorted portraits, of which Girl with Ponytail is superlative and quintessential example, Condo has established himself as one of the most distinguished figurative painters of the post-Millennium Era.
Condo’s psychological cubism refers to the distorting and merging of different perspectives. The artist explains: “Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states. Four of them can occur simultaneously… hysteria, joy, sadness, and desperation. If you could see these things at once that would be like what I’m trying to make you see in my art” (Press Release, George Condo Works on Paper, Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, 2015). Condo’s brilliant artistic thesis manifests itself in front of a viewer when gazing upon the visage of Girl with Ponytail as her different mental states and emotions are superimposed on each other as they converge in the space of a single, flat surface. The girl’s mouth, smiling with excitement but at the same time agape with insanity, gives a viewer the simultaneous impression that she is both an innocent child and a voracious creature. Her clown nose and monkey ears portray a sense of both mockery and seriousness as they are features that you would not find in reality but have been sewn into her persona by the artist. Her eyes are also paradoxical: one luring a viewer in seductively while the other is staring off blankly and is seemingly pushing a viewer away. Ultimately, these visual distortions suggest that the girl is in the grips of a psychological battle, and, by representing her psyche in this manner, Condo reveals the fractured person behind the image.
Condo’s skillful application of color also heightens this sensation of distortion. Like Edward Hopper who used color to portray and contrast solitude, Condo creates an image which also seems isolated and marginalized. However, through surprising bursts of bright colors, such as lime green and periwinkle, he creates a sense of levity in Girl with Ponytail that contributes to the enigmatic quality of the work. All these emotions culminate to impeccably demonstrate Condo’s use of ‘artificial realism’ which creates one single representation, “the realistic representation of that which is artificial...Dismantling one reality and constructing another from the same part, and that various concrete objects are not attached to their parts alone” (The artist in conversation with Ralph Rugoff, George Condo: Existential Portraits, New York 2006, p. 8).
Condo’s construction of the female form is influenced by Modernist masterworks such as Pablo Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair from 1932. The artist commented on the impact the painting had on his practice writing: “It led me to reconsider how the human figure could be constructed—by using methods of the Old Masters, and radicalizing that language by introducing contemporary images from my own imagination” (George Condo, Woman in a Red Armchair, London 2018, p. 46). Indeed, in his art-making Condo clearly pays homage to Picasso but also undermines him through his use of non-traditional imagery creating a cacophony of imaginary figures to draw from rather than models or photographs. Speaking on the merging of multiple personalities and the construction of his subjects Condo notes, “I may build a figure by giving it the features of two people; or I may give it the form of one person but think of it in the dream as having the name of another person; or I may have a visual picture of one person, but put it in a situation which is appropriate to another. In all these cases the combination of different persons into a single representative in the content of the dream has a meaning.’ (The artist in Exh. Cat., London, Simon Lee Gallery, George Condo, 2007, p. 20).
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