Monday, March 14, 2011

George Condo : Mental States & Lynda Benglis : New Museum, NY

Oh George Condo. There is a whisper campaign against him after his whole Kanye West album cover. The exact note being passed around may be that of “celebrity sellout” but I think we should give the guy a break. His current show at the New Museum, entitled Mental States is just a-ok with me.

He gets two floors (the boys always seem to get at least two floors in that place) the fourth floor is the biggest stacked box of them all with a high, silly high, ceiling. What is exaggerated in the room’s height is deficient in its lack of depth. There is a main wall and this wall is made even more frightfully oppressive by the almost floor to ceiling salon style hanging of his portrait paintings. The wall text states that Condo; uses, applies, derives from old master painting techniques to achieve his painting style. So yes, Condo obviously is pulling from a deck of art postcards of yore to riff on, but people, let’s be honest about this one thing; George Condo cannot paint very well. He paints well in the contemporary sense but if such grand statements of his painterly abilities as being equaled to the masters, then this must be called out as false, immediately, preferably by megaphone or robo-calling.

This is not to say that Condo’s paintings are not interesting. They actually possess a very strange effect only possible by painting and all its histories. The wall of portraits is like the walls in rich peoples’ houses with all their relatives from forever and beyond. They are familiar because they are obvious references to big hitters like Picasso, Goya, Rembrandt, and on and on, but they were twisted, all of them, like entering into a mental institution then drinking LSD tea and eating a cocaine bran muffin. The floor below had more segmented rooms grouped in respective degenerative states. It was in these that I gave Condo a gold star of good job on this whole painting thing. The vortexed, pinched, puckered, and squeezed faces are cartoonish but also cringingly familiar. Most stare directly at you with what I refer to as “crazy eyes” the same eyes that certain homeless/not homeless types in the subway have. When you know that to look into their eyes is to have invited a torrential vice grip of crazy. All of the characters are fleshy and super crusty. Condo’s most exceptional thing is he can accomplish a lot of feeling, trauma, flesh, movement, secrets with charmingly minimal energy, strokes and colors. Being open to him, starting with below average expectations, made this exhibit actually not all that bad.


Now to Lynda. Oh Oh Oh Oh, OH Lynda Benglis, how you make a girl happy to be a girl. She is firmly in the history books and not just the femanist section, she is IN. Her work is mostly on the second floor, a few scatter near the cafĂ© but that’s always a bad idea. Anyways, this show says it’s a retrospective and by golly it is. It has a slide show feel, things neatly arranged in chronological groupings. Most artists would suffer from this but Benglis is just too RAD to have anything that formulaic take her down.

There is a sampling of just about everything. Her “Fallen Paintings,” glob like lava pouring out the walls, latex pieces, wax pieces, bric a brac sculptures, knots, videos, and so forth. I was most surprised by the glitter pieces, which were done in the smartest, coolest way possible. There were these two rods on the wall parallel to each other and I can’t help but recall my index flash card of Barnet Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis whenever I see vertical parallel lines, eat your heart of Newman. Also the knots, I want to be one of those knots, I want to wear one as a hat or as a turtle shell. Sadly I am not allowed to squeeze the knots, this is the one thing regrettable about Benglis’ work, if you don’t own it you can’t play with it.

The best of this survey was a room of phosphorescent falling paintings entitled Phantom (1971). Someone mentioned this show and described this room and I replied that I didn’t know she did glow in the dark pieces and he replied that was probably because it was only the second time it was ever shown. For shame and also aren’t we lucky! Five ectoplasm cascades glow at rates of various brightness controlled by black lights and dimmer switch. They triggered off a ticker tape of references; Slimer, Matthew Barney, raves, Halloween, on and on. Most surprisingly though it made me think a lot of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa one of my favorite, sadly never seen sculptures. In these works and in almost all others by Benglis, its about sex. Not in a vulgar, or obvious politicized way but about sensuality, about pleasure. Benglis' work is smart, political, sexy and fun and she seeks no affirmation of their success. Dildos are okay! Romping with a man in a giant puppy costume is okay! Glitter is okay! Being as bad-ass a sculptor as the boys is okay! Thank god there is Benglis to remind us of this.