Since getting my Museums Association membership card, I’ve been wanting to run rampant on all exhibitions with an admissions fee. My first trip was to the Hayward Gallery this past Tuesday, where I knew George Condo – of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album cover fame – was having his Mental States exhibit. Condo’s work makes you laugh, feel disturbed, repulsed, and yet oddly right at home. His technique is exactly what I want to see in High Art painting: some chiaroscuro, some dramatic lighting, and maybe some oil portraiture. These are the things that tell me when an artwork is important. It’s uncanny how Condo’s straight-up use of the Great Masters’ styles – everything from Caravaggio to Picasso – makes you immediately value what he’s doing. I felt like I should contemplate each item deeply. But it’s here that his artwork falls flat: Condo exposes the very things you need to dig for in the Great Masters. The emotional underpinnings and tensions of those stoic High Renaissance depictions are brought to the surface so they can become a part of the portrait. Condo represents what we would look like if our anxieties and frustrations – so often conditioned by the world around us – physically moulded our faces and bodies. At first, this is visually striking and captivating, but in the end just strikes me as superficial and uncomplicated. There’s very little to challenge the viewer, with the exception, perhaps, of linking the title with the painting, and “getting” the joke. At one point, Condo is so self-aware with regards to his stylistic choices that he chooses to display his artwork in Salon-style. You would think this would foster a different kind of contemplation – one of formal or thematic elements, one of connections instead of separations between artworks. However, the semiotics of his artwork – the dependance upon “get it” moments – are so reliant upon the accompanying titles that an map is provided for this hanging. The whole thing seems so contrived, and just keeps calling me back to how, just when you think you’re getting something gritty and real with Condo, you’re just pushed back to the surface.
The Pipilotti Rist exhibition – also at the Hayward – was much more enjoyable. It featured installations and videos from the entirety of her career. There’s loads that could be written about her work (and has), but I’ll just say that it amazed me. I was really thrown into a tailspin when I found video art that could be so playful, confrontational, introspective, and mystical at the same time. I feel like I’ve been made to believe that video art has to be really heady and inaccessible. And, in many ways, Rist could just be another feminist video artist, but her care with sound and creativity with display methods inspired a kind of wonder and amazement that I haven’t experienced in the gallery space since maybe Berlin’s Museum Island – and that was almost expected, conventional. But this was really different – I watched videos that were displayed inside shells or picnic baskets. I looked into a dollhouse that had been torn apart by the moon. I tripped over stuffed trousers that made pillows for anyone that cared to lay down and watch. Magical.