It’s what I call artificial realism. That’s what I do. I try to depict a character’s train of thoughts simultaneously – hysteria, joy, sadness, desperation. If you could see these things at once that would be like what I’m trying to make you see in my art.
A flaming maelstrom of line and colour, Obstruct Expressionist Portrait of Mike Flynn sees George Condo at his best: the venerated tradition of portraiture shattered and ruptured to interrogate not only the infinitely fragmented complexities of the individual psyche but also the schizophrenic contradictions of the contemporary world. Retaining the genre of the portrait as a vehicle for his painterly investigations, Condo presents the viewer with the archetypal bust-length format in disarray, in which facial features, fragmented pieces of the visage, cartoon elements, and abstract planes of colour collide. “There was a time when I realized that the central focal point of portraiture did not have to be representational in any way,” Condo once said. “You don’t need to paint the body to show the truth about a character” (the artist cited in A. Bonney, “George Condo”, BOMB Magazine, 1992). Created in 2017, this portrait ventures into new abstractive techniques, including gestural swathes of colour and glistening flashes of metallic paint that powerfully activate the canvas. The explosive synthesis of colour and form evokes Pablo Picasso’s masterful Cubist facture: yet, where Picasso fragmented the picture plane to explore multiple viewpoints in the same moment, Condo fissures his compositions to reveal the kaleidoscopic complexities of human emotion through his self-termed mode of ‘psychological cubism’. “I try to depict a character’s train of thoughts simultaneously – hysteria, joy, sadness, desperation,” the artist explains. “If you could see these things at once that would be like what I’m trying to make you see in my art” (the artist cited in Stuart Jeffries, “George Condo: ‘I Was Delirious. Nearly Died’”, The Guardian, 10 February 2014, online).
Condo emerged onto the 1980s New York art scene at the age of 23 alongside seminal figures such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Haring and Basquiat, Condo was critically engaged throughout the eighties in the inauguration of a new form of figurative painting that stylistically blended the representational and the abstract. Drawing on vastly diverse painting practices – from Ingres and Velázquez to Picasso, Matisse and Warhol – and incorporating references from popular culture such as cartoons and comic strips, Condo internalized a multitude of art historical sources to create a distinctive pictorial language characteristically his own. He then coined the terms ‘artificial realism’ and ‘psychological cubism’ to define his hybridization of art historical influences, specifically his fusion of the Old Master subject matter with the distorted geometric perspectives of Cubism. Through a prolific output of compelling yet grotesque portraits, Condo established himself by the turn of the century as one of the preeminent figurative painters of the contemporary era; his method of extrapolating and distorting traditional figurative motifs through an abstract lens has influenced an entire generation of artists working today.
Created in 2017, the present work marks new areas of exploration that extend from his Drawing Paintings begun in 2008. Condo progressively reached deeper into mid-century movements for inspiration, incorporating techniques evocative of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and geometric configurations that recall the vibrant, abstract paintings of Wassily Kandinsky. “The only way for me to feel the difference between every other artist and me is to use every artist to become me,” Condo has remarked (Ibid). In the backdrop of the present work, the artist built on his virtuosic intuitive draughtsmanship with masterful command of pigment, fashioning sweeping gestures that imbue the work with a sense of volatile energy and kinetic force. By no means a purely abstract composition, the painting teeters on the periphery of representation as half-formed visages tantalisingly emerge and recede. The canvas furthermore glimmers with urgent dabs and streaks of gold paint; woven into the fabric of the rich multi-media paintings is a renewed interest in inserting art historical tropes in a playful and absurd new context that simultaneously revives, and humorously undermines, the integrity of Old Master portrait paintings. Indeed, in a nod to the action painters of the Twentieth Century, Condo has referred to these recent enlivening works as ‘action portraits’ for their capricious dynamism.
In reinterpreting past works, Condo’s distinctive style is founded not only upon his erudite knowledge of the field of art, but also of music. The artist studied both art history and music theory at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and, during the heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s East Village art scene in New York, belonged to a punk band called The Girls that performed alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat’s experimental band Gray in 1979. The present work’s visceral sense of rhythm and polyphony, founded upon Condo’s spontaneous, confident improvisations, is testament to such roots in music. In its delicate balance of humour and satire, innovation and revival, the present work brilliantly embodies Condo’s artistic aims.