At Boijmans: George Condo

The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is bigger on the inside. It is not an imposing building like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or a modern marvel like, say, Zaha Hadid’s extension on the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen, but you can get lost down its corridors, staircases and meandering rooms. Lost in art. This is the first of 3 or 4 posts about what I found there this summer.

Last Sunday, I went there for a very specific reason, but ended up doing less of what I had planned and more of something else. In this case, Mental States, a show of works by George Condo.

If you come into the gallery, as I did, with no foreknowledge of the artist, with no idea of what lies ahead, and find yourself standing in front of a wall of portraits of imaginary people, you might well be repelled, amused, surprised, puzzled, and perhaps dismissive. Take a look at this slideshow published with a review in the New York Times earlier this year to see what I mean.

The introduction to the show said:

Condo’s paintings and sculptures create a singular view—dystopic, humorous, empathetic, and critical—of our post-humanist age.

In the gallery, I had no idea how to relate this to the pictures, but after reading Cary Wolfe’s definition of post-humanism, it’s all starting to make sense in a weird way.

… posthumanism in my sense points toward the necessity of moving beyond the philosophical simplifications of humanism […] to arrive at a much thicker, more complex and layered description of this thing we call “human” and how it is bound up with all sorts of forces and factors that aren’t “human” at all (our “animal” biological inheritance and how it shapes our emotions, our behavior, our needs and wants; our ecological embeddedness as creatures of evolution in a web of life not of our making…

(Excerpt from post by Cary Wolfe on University of Minnesota Press blog)

Condo’s portraits incorporate the things we are not (creatures with mouse ears, mismatched eyes, four sets of teeth, faces covered in long flowing hair) to point toward some emotional truth and to position us in a world where we are not “masters of the realm,” but part of a greater biological web that we don’t fully understand. For all their weirdness, the portraits are strangely likeable even as they repel. You can’t tell from the photos, but the paintings are actually done in the techniques used by the Old Masters: layers of oil paint, varnishes and glazes.

I have here on my desk the Jan. 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker with a profile of George Condo written by Calvin Tomkins: Portraits of Imaginary People. I quote:

Nudity, fornication, rage, insanity, glee, violence, loneliness, and alienation are the norm here, and this does not sit well with critics who think serious art should not make you laugh out loud. Condo’s mother […] occasionally has similar doubts. Why, his mother asks him, does he paint such things?

For all the crazy bravado and layered challenges of the paintings, it was a room of 16 sculptures that held my attention. Displayed on top of white pillars in a small and stark space, 15 heads in gilded bronze and one in green bronze. About life-size, perhaps a little smaller, intensely moving in their self-contained sadness and solitude.

The show came to Rotterdam from the New Museum in New York, and when it closes here on September 25, it will travel to the Hayward Gallery in London (October 18 to January 2, 2012) and then to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.

2 thoughts on “At Boijmans: George Condo

  1. Post-humanism? … Thank you, now I kind of know what it is. In fact, I was trying to explain it to Minor – I don’t think he was listening particularly attentively … he did ask about it though. Hard to feel affected by the paintings … I guess you have to be there. However, the head sculptures were quite evocative. Again, thanks for the informative piece … can’t wait till the next one.


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