ART:

Phillips Col­lec­tion ex­hi­bi­tion of the works of Ge­orge Condo val­ues style over sub­stance.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT philip.kennicott@wash­post.com

In the largest gallery of a three-room Phillips Col­lec­tion ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to the draw­ings of Ge­orge Condo, a ta­ble is groan­ing with note­books and sketch pads. A few of th­ese are open to show what’s in­side — draw­ings, sketches, ran­dom mus­ings and jour­nal en­tries. Yet vis­i­tors aren’t in­vited to pick up and leaf through th­ese tools of the artist’s trade. This pile of dead pa­per is pre­sented to un­der­score the ba­sic mes­sage of the ex­hi­bi­tion: Condo is a pro­tean artist, pro­lific and flu­ent, who works with vir­tu­oso speed and con­fi­dence.

Condo emerged from the East Vil­lage art scene in the 1980s, and in an es­say for the forth­com­ing cat­a­logue to the ex­hi­bi­tion, cu­ra­tor Klaus Ottmann says, “He was in­stru­men­tal in the re­vival of fig­u­ra­tion in Amer­i­can art, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Har­ing, as well as Jeff Koons, who in­tro­duced the fig­ure through sculp­ture.” Condo’s fig­ures owe a lot to Pi­casso, es­pe­cially those made dur­ing the Span­ish artist’s sur­re­al­ist pe­riod, when he max­i­mized the im­pact of ev­ery thick line, and through­out his later, wildly eclec­tic years, when he often clut­tered his im­ages to the point of psy­chic pol­lu­tion.

But Condo fuses to this aes­thetic car­toon ges­tures, grotesque faces, in­fan­tilized heads and grue­some car­i­ca­tures. It is art of the mash-up, and Condo is so facile at so many dif­fer­ent styles that es­sen­tially all of art his­tory gets mashed up in the end.

Condo, an Amer­i­can artist born in 1957, was clearly in­ter­ested in art from an early age. Among the first works on view at the Phillips are an earnest but rather clot­ted piece of ju­ve­nilia ti­tled “Cru­ci­fix­ion,” painted in 1962, and di­nosaur draw­ings from when he was about 8 years old. Th­ese may be in­cluded to help jus­tify the os­ten­si­ble theme of the show: “The Way I Think.” He thinks through draw­ing, and clearly has from a very early age.

also has spent a con­sid­er­able amount of imag­i­na­tive ef­fort in­vent­ing re­cur­ring char­ac­ters (In­sane Car­di­nal, The Ex­ec­u­tive, Un­cle Joe) and bor­row­ing ex­ist­ing car­toon fig­ures (Wile E. Coy­ote, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn). The graphic short­hand of car­toon­ing is a re­cur­ring el­e­ment even in his mostly ab­stract com­po­si­tions. In a draw­ing with acrylic, charcoal and pas­tel called “Red and Black Com­pres­sion,” the artist cre­ates a hori­zon line and empty sky at the top of the im­age and a dense un­der­world of red and black lines below. Peer­ing out through this sub­ter­ranean of lines and ges­tures are rec­og­niz­able car­toon eyes and fa­mil­iar bod­ily forms from his re­cur­ring vo­cab­u­lary of short­hand fig­u­ra­tion.

His work is most im­pres­sive when games with ab­strac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion lead to pivot points be­tween the two lan­guages, or call at­ten­tion to a ba­sic har­monic shift be­tween seem­ingly ir­rec­on­cil­able vis­ual tonal­i­ties. In a pair of works from 2000 (“Re­clin­ing Nude” and “Re­clin­ing Forms”), Pi­casso-like forms are limned with the splat­ter­ing drib­bles of paint as flung from the brush by Jack­son Pol­lock, breakCondo ing down the so­lid­ity of the line while keep­ing the fig­ure en­tirely in­tact. In other works, a crazily com­pli­cated lat­tice of thin lines sug­ges­tive of Cy Twombly will hide within it sub­ver­sive fig­ures that seem to want to es­cape into a re­al­ity be­yond their two-di­men­sional im­pris­on­ment. The so­bri­ety of ab­strac­tion is often un­der­mined by the ex­plo­sive power of a child­like scrawl meant to sug­gest a face. Art, it seems, is eas­ily un­done by ges­tures no more sub­stan­tial than the crude ren­der­ing of anatomy one might find on a bath­room wall.

The range of al­lu­sion in Con­maze do’s draw­ings is vast, and the artist’s abil­ity to im­per­son­ate is im­pres­sive. This last fact, his gift for vis­ual mimicry, seems to be the source of much of the trou­ble that dogs his work. How does one take an artist se­ri­ously who not only doesn’t seem to take him­self se­ri­ously, but also may not have a gen­uine sense of artis­tic self at all? If th­ese ques­tions bother you, make an ef­fort to read the mostly im­pen­e­tra­ble cat­a­logue es­say by Ottmann.

The es­say quotes Condo: “What I have cre­ated is the state in which the im­age time pres­enc­ing of an­other re­al­ity is su­per­im­posed within a field of an­other si­mul­ta­ne­ous pres­ence, cre­at­ing a con­junc­tive new hy­per­re­al­ity or hy­brid im­age show­ing th­ese si­mul­ta­ne­ous pres­ences. This con­tin­uum is al­lowed to ex­ist freely in con­cert with the his­tory of art.” It isn’t ex­actly fair to take this out of con­text, but al­most all of the quo­ta­tions in this es­say are taken out of con­text, or so ab­bre­vi­ated that it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to make any sense of them.

To com­pre­hend the es­say, you’ll need to look up the orig­i­nals, from which ci­ta­tions by Claude Levi-Strauss, John Searle, Hegel and Hei­deg­ger are taken. And yet, even if you do, you may sense the mis­ap­pli­ca­tion of an es­sen­tially mys­ti­cal philo­soph­i­cal dis­course about such things as be­ing and essence and ap­pear­ance to ideas about how art is made, how it com­mu­ni­cates and how it re­lates to the artist’s in­ten­tions and per­son­al­ity.

In short, Condo’s work is much more lik­able the less you en­gage with the cara­pace of phi­los­o­phy with which some peo­ple (in­clud­ing Condo) like to en­case it. That’s un­for­tu­nate, be­cause the work is full of per­son­al­ity, hu­mor and provo­ca­tion, and it would be a plea­sure to take it se­ri­ously if those who take it se­ri­ously didn’t take it so damn se­ri­ously.

Ge­orge Condo: The Way I Think Through June 25 at the Phillips Col­lec­tion, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151. phillip­scol­lec­tion.org.

COL­LEC­TION OF DON­ALD B. MAR­RON /COUR­TESY OF THE SKARSTEDT GALLERY AND SPRUTH MAGERS

Ge­orge Condo, “Red and Black Com­pres­sion” (2011), acrylic, charcoal and pas­tel on pa­per. On view in “Ge­orge Condo: The Way I Think” at the Phillips Col­lec­tion.

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