Female Portrait epitomises Condo’s mature style. It is a remarkable example of the artist’s celebrated Drawing Paintings (2009-present), so called because they marked a shift away from the oil paint that Condo had used up to that point towards a multi-media approach consisting of acrylic, charcoal and pastel. Unlike the portraits from the 2000s, where grotesque and highly stylised figures would emerge from the darkness, the present work sees Condo apply jewel-like patches of vibrant blues, oranges and yellows to the composition; Jazz-like experimentations with the human form which have come to define this series. In the artist’s words, these paintings are “about freedom of line and colour [that] blur the distinction between drawing and painting. They are about beauty and horror walking hand in hand. They are about improvisation on the human figure and its consciousness” (George Condo cited in: Press Release, New York, Skarstedt Gallery, George Condo: Drawing Paintings, November 2011, online). Quite aside from these stylistic concerns, it is well worth examining the purpose of Condo’s distortions, namely the desire to emulate Cubism not in its attempt to show an object from various different angles, but rather by setting to paint the internal, ever changing, and often conflicting emotions of the human psyche. This attempt defies the static medium in which he works, and indeed the purported objective of portraiture, that is, a representation of physical appearance. After all, any traces of physical individuality are abandoned here, in favor of mapping out the furthest extremes of the human psyche, a process that Condo has described as ‘psychological Cubism’.
Condo’s figurative work can be described in part as an assault upon the traditions of portraiture. Through his attempt to trace the psyche of his sitter, Condo breaks the conceit of portrait painting as a whole, eliminating the illusion that drives it. As the artist has stated, “the affected part of people is the interesting side to me. It’s the real side of them that’s boring”, and there can be little doubt that portraiture as a whole is an affectation (George Condo in conversation with Anney Bonney in: BOMB 40, 1992, online). The portrait that emerges from an artist’s studio is propagandistic – it conveys the reality that the sitter wants to transmit. However, through his attempts to trace psychology, rather than appearance, Condo subverts this aim, denying his sitters the ability to curate their own image.
Clearly, this lampooning of established artistic mores, as well as of the artists themselves, serves to conflate lofty cultural aspiration with something altogether more base. The clownish and absurd representation of human nature and desire demonstrate the ease with which even the most admirable of intentions can become confused and perverted. Over the last three decades, in canvases that articulate this kind of potent and mixed emotional charge, “Condo has explored the outer suburbs of acceptability while making pictures that, for all of their outrageous humor, are deeply immersed in memories of European and American traditions of painting” (Ralph Rugoff, ‘The Mental States of America’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, George Condo: Mental States, 2011, p. 11).
Steeped in the traditions of Cubism but fundamentally altered by the quiddities of Condo’s idiosyncratic style, Female Portrait is a masterpiece that demonstrates the artist’s extraordinary command of line, colour and composition. The subject is divided into many planes, with undue focus placed upon individual parts of the face, such as the eyes, ears and teeth. The bust meanwhile is flattened and obliterated, transforming into a mere support for the cacophony of colour and depth that is the head. “Monsters are just as beautiful as maidens”, Condo has claimed, and there can be little doubt that although there are distinct overtones of the grotesque, there is also a beauty to this work (George Condo in conversation with Anney Bonney in: op. cit., online). Emerging from a background of dappled golden-brown brushstrokes reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s iconic landscapes, the colours utilised are harmonious, with their textural flatness juxtaposed against an expressionistic background. Similarly, the comically large circles of the figure’s mouse-like ears contrast with the sharp edges that contour the face; here pigment and form coalesce into a coherent whole. Operating as a bridge between abstraction and figuration, the present work is a superb example of Condo’s pioneering oeuvre, which has seen the artist deconstruct portraiture only to re-build it in his own, unique image.
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