George Condo: ‘Change can’t just be an idea or a slogan – it has to get real’

The New York City artist George Condo has become New York state artist George Condo, a surprising move for someone so intensely intertwined with the city’s culture. The Hamptons is his new normal, after he ditched Manhattan in March.

Not that he is keeping track of time. “The month of May soon turned into August, which then turned into November,” Condo says to the Guardian from his studio later that day. “2020 is just the framing of the time lapse.”

It’s all a blur, much like his messy paintings, which are now on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York City. Internal Riot, opening this week, features 18 paintings and drawings, ranging from nightmarish splashes of insanity, to portraits of Virginia Woolf, Bugs Bunny and the rapper Travis Scott.

There are also a series of chaotic landscapes, depicting the artist’s own inner storm, which easily mirrors our own anxious moment. The show digs into self-isolation, madness and the divided disarray that America is today.

“The ‘divisive inequality of America’ is how I would describe it,” Condo corrects me. “It was always there, but now change can’t just be an idea or a slogan – it has to get real and fulfill the ideals it supposedly stands for.”

It ties into his trademark abstracted portraits, calling to mind Pablo Picasso’s cubism, but updated with an expressionistic, pop art flair, painted with a bold Disneyland palette, where outer conflict meets inner struggle.

Condo calls this style of painting “artificial realism” or “psychological cubism”. He describes it as tracing the thoughts of each character, capturing their overlaying, fluctuating moods with a paintbrush.

“People are torn apart in and of themselves, barely human at times,” said Condo. “You can see a person trying to break free from a structure and become whole again.”

The new works in this show – all made in 2020 – range from Father and Daughter with Face Mask, two freaked-out figures all masked up, Hysteria, a figure screaming in the dark, and There’s No Business Like No Business, which depicts a sad, solitary figure in distress (it calls to mind all the small business owners in New York who have closed up shop).

And his own mirror? What does Condo see when he looks in the mirror today? Just look at his latest painting entitled Internal Riot. On a crimson red background, it looks as though a man is yelling at himself.

What does the creator see when he looks at it? “A combination of images scrambled up from newscasts and footage of the riots that took place across America,” he says. “It’s the desire to relentlessly pursue the perpetrators who inhabit the periphery of the mind and root them out.”

The artist came into the spotlight after befriending Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, which led to him working at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York. He then fled to Paris, where he lived and painted for years, and outraged the UK with his ghastly portrait of the Queen as a scabby-looking monster in 2006. He then returned to New York, where he painted Allen Ginsberg’s final portrait in the hospital before he died. Up until March, Condo was living on the Upper East Side.

He’s well versed in the rap world. Condo painted the album cover for Kanye West’s 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and shortly after, painted a Hermès Birkin bag for Kim Kardashian West (West has shown his face at Condo’s studio and museum openings). Even Jay-Z name-dropped Condo’s name in a rap song (“Condos in my condo I want a row of”), from his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail.

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