George Condo hasn’t written many artist’s statements lately, which isn’t a bad thing. Quite the contrary—most artist statements are dull to read, and read as if they were even duller to write; why they exist at all is a timeless riddle. At this point in his career, Condo presumably does very few things he doesn’t want to do. So the fact that “George Condo: Internal Riot,” at Hauser & Wirth, came with a few paragraphs courtesy of the man himself suggests that this is no formality; either some publicist is holding a gun to his head, or he’s writing from the heart. A sample: “The virus turned deadly. . . . The protests were justified. I protested with my paintings. In a psychological sense, I lit them on fire and turned them upside down in revolt and sickness.”
This isn’t the usual BS about topoi and temporalities, but it doesn’t leave me quivering with anticipation, either. My least favorite Condo is “relevant” Condo, the Condo of fish-in-a-barrel social satire and joyless Zeitgeist hunting. His new paintings may not be as on-the-nose as the fat, smirking bankers he began painting during the recession in 2008, but they have that same misplaced confidence. The works in “Internal Riot” (all 2020) depict heads—calling them portraits isn’t quite right—decked out in googly eyes and snaggleteeth. The technique is uneven, but the size and brazenness connote capital-I Importance, and there’s an implicit “You’re welcome,” as if Condo’s half-assmanship were a response to COVID-19, or Breonna Taylor, or whatever.
Sickness—every kind—has been a theme of Condo’s work since he started out in the 1980s, but at his best he makes it stick-in-your-throat unsettling. Here, it’s just sick. Compare Hysteria (2020), an extra-crude, Cookie Monster–blue head from the new show, with a vintage Condo like Batman and Bunny (2005), in which the comic book hero poses with a Gorgon-faced Playboy bunny. A few of these paintings’ parts are similar—the glistening eyes, the five-sided grins—but there’s something enthrallingly just out-of-reach in the older work, a dash of technical refinement that makes its horrors easier to choke down, yet no less horrific. It’s genuinely hysterical. Hysteria, on the other hand, is so screechily self-defining it fades away well before you’re finished looking.
Odd to say about a show called “Internal Riot,” but Condo’s new paintings have no subconscious; what you see is pretty much what you get. The show’s drawings, on the other hand, reveal their secrets a little at a time and are much the better for it. The major motifs are the same, but here, Condo works them into dense abstractions, making smart use of negative space and precisely spare color. “Subtle” isn’t the right word for Appearances, a bright thicket of eyes, teeth, and faces with a dash of Kandinsky to boot, but it takes its time where Hysteria rushes ahead. Condo’s images can be divided into two groups: those that seem to begin with some pop culture artifact we already recognize and then gnaw it apart; and those that seem to begin with scribbles that barely qualify as images but cohere until we almost recognize them. I’m not sure Condo has ever paired these two kinds of images more skillfully than he does in the new drawings—look at the heart-faced beauty at the center of Appearances, and then look at the cackling monsters all around her. Condo gives us a calm, creeping horror, half coming-together and half coming-apart, and it’s a sharper riposte to his own recent paintings than I can manage.