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The Mental States of George Condo

Hayward Gallery director and curator Ralph Rugoff reveals all about an incredibly resonant - and occasionally grotesque - retrospective
George Condo, Batman and Bunny (2005)
George Condo, Batman and Bunny (2005)



Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre , London, United Kingdom

From: 18 October 2011
Until: 8 January 2012

George Condo: Mental States

Opening hours:
Open daily: 10am until 6pm
Late nights Thursdays and Fridays until 8pm

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Earlier this week we brought you news about Kanye West playing a secret show at the opening of George Condo’s show Mental States, at the Hayward Gallery in London. Yesterday we caught up with Hayward Director and curator of the show Ralph Rugoff. Ralph is one of the most knowledgeable people in the art world we’ve met – Frieze Art Fair co-director Matthew Slotover says "his shows never fail to capture viewers’ imaginations”, while the Serpentine's co-director of exhibitions and programmes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, has called him "an amazing curator and writer". New York born Ralph has a reputation for not following the herd – at the Wattis Gallery in New York where he worked prior to the Hayward, he curated a show of invisible art. He was effusive in his appreciation of Condo’s work - an appreciation we at share. We hope you find his thoughts on the Condo show illuminating. We think it’s one of the best in London at the moment.

When did you first meet George?

In London in, I think, 1999. I was amazed at how incredibly down to earth he was and is. He talks about his work, he’s not trying to bluff you with some pseudo intellectual patter. He’s incredibly real. And he also has an incredible sense of humour and enjoys it. He’s just always coming up with funny ideas. His brain is always percolating. There’s this sense of great humour and great imagination. He’s an artist I’ve been interested in for a long time. He’s had different peak moments in his career but he’s long overdue for a show like this. He’s been making great paintings for some time. With his series of drawing paintings from 2009/ 2010 - it’s like he’s condensed everything he’s learnt about painting into these. The Met bought one MOMA bought one. There’s been a big response to them.

What’s he like to work with?

He’s a very creative thinker - also in terms of installation. He’s done thousands of paintings and he remembers them really well so he’s someone who can always suggest another painting. Generally we agreed on the concept of the show early on that it was going to focus on portraiture and have these divisions that corresponded to mental states. And there was always going to be this one, big, salon-style hang because George has done so many different kinds of paintings. Rather than divide the show into the different works he’s done it seemed great to lay out a wall where you can see everything - because that’s always been his approach. So that was there from the beginning and then it was just a case of finding which paintings. 

He often takes classical references and skews them in interesting ways doesn’t he?

The conceptual side of George I think is sometimes him playing with what the status of what a work of art is. Whether it’s by making a fake of an old master or a simulated antiquity like the fake gold heads in the Hayward show. It’s like some delinquent version of classical Greece. So you kind of get both things – his exploration of style and the status of what it is.


George Condo (left)and <em>Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen</em>George Condo (right) and Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen


Where did the title, Mental States, come from?

I think there was always the idea of his work embodying these intense and often conflicted emotional attitudes and conditions not only in the subject and how it was portrayed but also in the way that you feel when you look at it. You might feel that this is hilarious but it’s also sad or grotesque but it’s also beautiful. It’s very emotional so even if it’s a cartoon character it’s incredibly resonant and then he has a painting in the show called Mental States - a beautiful painting – it has a classical fifties abstract feeling to it, like a Franz Kline or something and in it you see these cartoon characters looming out of the darkness. They’re like hidden in the shadows, heads that pop out and look at you. These faces keep coming, keep moving. It’s like some image you can’t get out of your head at night when you’re trying to get to sleep. So that seemed like it was the perfect title for the show.


George Condo, <em>Jesus</em> (2002)
George Condo, Jesus (2002)


There were a lot of artists at the opening, what did they make of it?

It was great to see artists there as different as Mark Wallinger and Martin Creed, Mat Collishaw. George has always been an artists’ artist and they all were kinda blown away by it. I think sometimes people are put off by George’s work, they think it’s too intense. They think they’re just grotesque and cartoony and I think artists appreciate the fact that George doesn’t censor himself, he takes outrageous chances and they see that freedom and they really respect that.


George Condo, <em>Uncle Joe</em> (2005)
George Condo, Uncle Joe (2005)


Do you have a personal favourite?

There’s so many, it’s really hard to pin them down. For me The Stockbroker is just a killer portrait. And how many artists have done portraits of stockbrokers? As important as the stockbroker has been over the last few years people don’t seem to be picking up on it. That’s the portrait of our time. I think it’s also interesting because George isn’t only inventing all this stuff, he’s looking round and responding to what is happening.


George Condo, <em>The Stockbroker</em> (2002)
George Condo, The Stockbroker (2002)


He still feels fairly undiscovered why is that?

Yeah, this is his first major show. He’s 53 he’s been painting for 30 years. He made a splash very early on and then he moved to Paris which in those days was pretty dead in terms of contemporary art. He isolated himself from the whole New York thing and, in a way, a lot of the artists who he had influenced, - people like John Currin Or Glenn Brown or Lisa Yuskavage. They ended up getting a lot of attention for their work of these invented portraits that were mixing genres in the nineties. In a way, George faded into the background as that generation took centre stage, so I think it’s a rediscovery moment. The art world has its fashion cycles.

Is he an entertainer? 

He definitely enjoys the outrageous and he goes in that direction but I don’t think he’d ever say it was just about entertainment. I think really good art has to engage you and that’s entertaining. But sometimes we speak of entertainment as something that is just pleasantly distracting and occupies your mind and leaves you with nothing. Whereas I think George wants his paintings to have an impact and engage people.


Follow the link to get more information and buy tickets to George Condo: Mental States at the Hayward Gallery, London



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