What’s The Point? That is not only the title of George Condo’s show at the Spruth Magers Gallery in the mid- Wilshire area, it pretty much summarizes his own view of painting. It is not the nihilistic rhetorical question you might assume. Instead, it is the query that Condo brings to his methods of painting and one he believes must be the underpinning of all great art. What is the point of each line, each blob of color, each brushstroke? What is the point of making art at all? Condo answers his own question in each of the extraordinary and demanding paintings in this show, which is on view to June 1.
Condo’s self-questioning comes at a time in his life when he has long been praised for his ability to combine unlikely motifs drawn from traditions of Western art history. Rembrandt and Picasso, Guston and Goofy, without regard for chronological evolution. Such pastiches have become common in the digital era with its cut and paste programs. By comparison, Condo’s paintings explode with his pre-digital talent for balancing chaos and comedy, romance and discipline, deep space and decorative surface. In this show, especially, they make a stand and defend it.
The riveting centerpiece of the show is a painting of mottled black background where a blotchy head with bulging eyes and buck teeth stares with an expression of that could be surprise, shock, perhaps accusation. Part of its rounded skull is a exploding with splashes of red and yellow, as if it might be on fire. An alien being? The collective unconcious? A baby chick? After all, it is titled Birdbrain (2018).
Eyes are everywhere in Condo’s paintings. Flirting, scowling, judging, staring. On Internal Network (2018), their black outlines are pieced together with other body parts as elaborate lace that tops brushy fields of blue, rose, white or gray. Our own eyes puzzle through the layers of meaning, serious and comical by turns.
Condo, 61, grew up in Concord, Massachusetts and initially studied music and art at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He first gained attention amidst the roaring return to painting, as it was then considered, in the early ‘80s of downtown New York. With Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, he was fearless and fabulous pretty much out the gate, despite no graduate degree from a prestigious art school. He did play in a series of punk-ish rock bands. He worked briefly for Warhol but the experience further solidified his interest in pre- Pop art: Old Masters, the Renaissance, 18th-century Romanticism as well as the moderns. He drew from periods and artists who had falled afoul of critical approval: late Magritte or Philip Guston. His references to the obsessively varied work of Picasso are often noted but who better?
Condo’s first solo exhibition was not in New York but Los Angeles at the Ulrike Kantor Gallery in 1983. (Monika Spruth has shown the work since 1984.) Time spent here in the early ‘80s allowed him to get perspective on his own art without the pressures of the overheated Manhattan scene. He brought his own solid ground with him when he returned to New York and gained initial acclaim. A subsequent decade in Europe solidified the connections between the art of the past and present.
Condo’s visual voraciousness has been a weakness at times but not in this show. Playing with the masters can be a tough slog for any artist but in asking What’s The Point?, Condo has won another round in the tournament.