George Condo

Mental States


Not on display

George Condo born 1957
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1321 × 1321 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Karpidas Family (Tate Americas Foundation) 2015


Mental States 2000 is a medium-sized oil painting on canvas executed with a dark and sombre palette of black, brown and ochre, in broad and gestural brushstrokes. It depicts a group of figures, densely packed into a crowded space. The body of a naked female form is visible in the bottom right-hand corner, while faces with clenched teeth and bulging eyes loom out of the darkness across the canvas. The painting was first shown in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris in 2001. It would later provide the title for Condo’s retrospective exhibition which started at the New Museum, New York in 2011 and toured to the Hayward Gallery in London later that year, as well as to venues in Rotterdam and Frankfurt.

While Condo has long presented his audiences with strange and grotesque characters, drawn from a range of historical and contemporary genres as well as imaginative speculation, a new group of peculiar beings emerged in his work during a summer holiday in 1996. The artist later named them the ‘Antipodal Beings’; a term taken from English writer Aldous Huxley’s essay of 1956, ‘Heaven and Hell’, which suggested that ‘the mind has its own darkest Africa or outer Antipodes’ and that the inhabitants of this mysterious world exist, in some sense, independently of their creator’ (quoted in Hayward Gallery 2011, p.20). Characterised by distorted forms, protruding chins and oversized eyes bulging with panic, curiosity or rage, the ‘Antipodal Beings’ gradually seeped into Condo’s work over a period of time.

After discovering in December 2000 a text from 1994 by art historian Michael Kwakkelstein, Leonardo Da Vinci as a Physiognomist, Condo embarked on a study of the science of physiognomy as it had been understood in Renaissance Italy. Using its principles – the perceived correlation between the physical characteristics or character of an individual and their facial configuration – as a conceptual tool, Condo began to consider the way in which it might begin to explain the pervasive power of his oddly peculiar creatures. He has said: ‘It shed some interesting light on the potential of explaining the “Antipodal Beings” as physiognomical variants on the study of human expression … the inner mental state expressed by outward appearance’ (quoted in Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont 2001, p.8).

In the catalogue to his 2001 exhibition at the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, in which these works were first exhibited as a group, Condo discussed the discovery of Kwakkelstein’s text and its subsequent impact on his thinking:

This led me to the concept of ‘Physiognomical Abstraction’, where the mental state or physical representation of the inner consciousness (that of the antipodal beings) and the appearance of the being, which is in effect a collage of memory and experience, can be expressed as the material form that ‘gives out’ consciousness in order to ‘send back’ consciousness into its non-material appearance, and represent the material consciousness of an imaginary being.
(Quoted in Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont 2001, p.8.)

Considered in the context of such a discovery, Mental States can be seen, as its title suggests, as both a depiction of an individual and a revelation of that individual’s inner consciousness. Translating visual cause into psychological effect, the painting’s dark surface and disjointed imagery suggests a complex and unstable psychosomatic state, characterised by psychotic rage or fear. The proliferation of hovering heads in this particular work – and the presence of a single female body – suggests that it refers to the complex mental state of just one individual.

Through the repetition of a number of images of the same woman, pictured as a series of faces across the canvas, Condo presents the viewer with a fragmented and fractured inventory of the psyche of one individual. Her conflicting and complex character is portrayed simultaneously, as faces are depicted in various states of mental wellbeing, encompassing a range of emotions from euphoria to rage and despair. As such, the work functions as an inventory of expression, indicating the vast and diverse range of mental states that lie waiting to be uncovered at any one time. Instead of presenting a clear picture of any particular character trait, Condo instead grapples with the complexity of human psychology as a whole, offering a composite image that is fragmented, confused and disturbed. Incorporating a wide range of sources, from cartoons and popular culture to abstract expressionism, Condo articulates mood and emotion in a way that is both comic and powerful. Faces with Mickey Mouse ears and bulging cartoon eyes sit alongside menacing beings with gnarling teeth, revealing the deeply contradictory sides of every human personality.

Painted with broad, gestural brushstrokes that convey the fluidity of the inner psyche, Mental States is produced with dark and sombre colours. Filled with large and illegible pockets of blackness – punctuated only at intervals by bright highlights or the white of an eye – the palette seems to echo the individual’s troubled state of mind. Whilst the canvas incorporates abstracted shapes as human figures are bent and moulded to purpose, it remains, in essence, a figurative study. Laura Hoptman, contributor to the catalogue for Condo’s exhibition at Hayward Gallery in London in 2011–12, has said: ‘For Condo, “abstract” is a verb; rarely, if ever, is it a noun’ (Laura Hoptman, ‘Abstraction as a State of Mind’, in Hayward Gallery 2011, p.23).

Condo’s troubled faces are rendered with pathos and sympathy. Far from simple mimicry or caricature, despite their stylised forms, they are simultaneously repellent and endearing, conjuring up a range of conflicting emotions. Reflecting variously the mental states of the female depicted, as well as the artist and the viewer, they evoke the complex and essentially contradictory nature of the human character, alluding to the psychological impact of modern life on the psyche. Condo has said: ‘I would propose that the “Physiognomical Abstractions” are in some sense road maps that lead back into the mental state of the individual consciousness. If one follows the maps he will arrive deeper into his own mind and perhaps even come into contact with his own peripheral beings’ (quoted in Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont 2001, pp.8–9).

Further reading
George Condo: Physiognomical Abstraction, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris 2001.
George Condo: Mental States, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2011, reproduced p.107.

Hannah Dewar
December 2012

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