Installation shot of George Condo: Paintings from the 1980s; courtesy of Nicholas Robinson Gallery
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How nostalgic are you for the 1980’s? The Briggs Robinson Gallery in Chelsea is hoping that you are—or, at least, it’s hoping there’s an audience hungry for the paintings of that decade by George Condo. Mr. Condo came to prominence during the East Village art scene of the early 1980’s, a milieu fostered by cheap rents, the renegade allure of urban culture and the heady promise of a bona fide (if, in retrospect, illusory) avant-garde. The pull of the East Village, being somewhat illicit, was irresistible. Real-estate developers couldn’t resist the East Village either, thereby ensuring its brief reign as an art center.
The scene itself was marked by a Pop-fueled, ragtag ethos, yet the art resulting from it wasn’t stylistically consistent: We have the East Village to thank for work as different as that of Jean Michel-Basquiat, Jeff Koons, David Wojnarowicz and Ross Bleckner. Then again, a scene whose priorities were predicated more on nightclubbing than art shouldn’t be expected to hold style as an integral component of vision.
But don’t talk to the folks at Briggs Robinson about the East Village. Mr. Condo, we are told, isn’t a “neo-expressionist inspired by the pop-cartoon culture of the streets”; he operates “within a different lineage”—a prestigious lineage, too, that includes James Ensor, Pablo Picasso and Philip Guston. This kind of boosterism must come as a surprise to Mr. Condo: After all, the governing principle of his art is hate—not too strong a word, I think, given his cursory pastiches of Modernist convention.
Sluggish and hasty “homages” to Picasso, reheated Surrealism, killer clowns, angry pussycats and goofy bunnies—high art and thrift-shop kitsch, it’s all the same to Mr. Condo. Forget material amenities: Oil paint, in Mr. Condo’s hands, is a murky, foreign substance, and his efforts in collage weightless and glib. On the whole, the paintings seem bored with themselves. New Yorkers pining for the days when Postmodernism seemed newish and vaguely thrilling will seek out Mr. Condo’s pictures. Those less enamored of easy cynicism and ugly paintings will satisfy their nostalgia fix elsewhere.
© 2004 Mario Naves
Originally published in the October 31, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.