John McNaughton is a filmmaker who made his mark peering into the abyss of human evil, as in his truly disturbing film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) or the gloriously disposable Wild Things (1998). With the release of this documentary, Condo Painting (2000) audiences will see what happens when McNaughton dabbles in art history. Is there an equation here between art and murder? Not exactly. Let’s just say the film could have easily been titled George Condo: Portrait of a Serial Painter.
The cliché of the tortured artist plagued by demonic visions and faced with the eternally returning void of the studio or blank canvas is given new and preposterous life by the whimsy inherent to the world of George Condo. Slightly dishevelled and with an all-knowing glint in his eye, Condo is the type of individual who might arouse mild suspicion in public. You could imagine him wandering the streets openly muttering about creatures inhabiting an alternate reality to which only he has privileged access. He speaks excitedly of ‘antipods’, capricious, Huxleyesque creatures suspended somewhere in the nether world, waiting patiently to be brought to life by the act of painting. As he states late in the film, his job is to deliver them from ‘invisibility’. As well as his own personal metaphysic of aliens, Condo is the first to admit that the work is also informed by the detritus of mass media. He has a fetishistic attachment to, for example, the Beverly Hillbillies. Those interested would do well to consult his book, Grannie’s Guide to Art History or Just Plain Old Madness (1997).
Condo’s imagery - a dialectic between classic portraiture and Disneyland - is unmistakable. He asks himself why his subjects share common features: the balloon eyes, the heads begetting heads, the nightmare in the nursery, etc. This visual repetition, the style that puts the serial in serial painter, is all the proof he needs. Time and again they appear on his canvas; therefore, he announces, they must exist.
Madness, however, is not the final word. Instead, one can diagnose a certain regressive infantilism - a return to the freedom and imagination of childhood. As Baudelaire remarked, ‘This ease in gratifying the imagination is evidence of the spirituality of childhood in its artistic conceptions. The toy is the child’s earliest initiation to art, or rather for him it is the first example of art, and when the mature age comes, the perfected examples will not give his mind the same feelings of warmth, nor the same enthusiasms, nor the same sense of conviction.’ Not true for the ‘mature’ Condo. The toys that appear to fascinate him endlessly are, we learn, portals for extraterrestrial communion. A yo-yo or a wind-up animal are further proof of the interpenetration of the invisible into the visible. Give Condo a cheap Halloween mask and he becomes tour guide to the realm of the antipods.
The film is loosely structured around a single painting, a large portrait whose original ‘face’ is all but obliterated by a year-long artistic struggle. During the process of making the film, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, two of Condo’s friends, passed away. Through the spirit medium of paint Condo revives them into the phenomenal world as subjects of the painting in question. Burroughs, according to Condo, is the impetus for the final image. The darker visage of the finished portrait negates an underpainting of a more colourful and assuredly more playful conception of Ginsburg. Although the original is no longer visible, the audience begins to surmise that it may perhaps live on in Condo’s self-proclaimed quest for a ‘unified presence of all presences’ - no easy task. Upon the painting’s completion, Condo declared ‘this is the last time I am signing this’.
McNaughton is more than willing to collude with Condo’s flight of fancy. As the documentary nears its end, the two collaborators abandon fact for fiction. Condo, armed with an electronic ‘pod detector’, runs amok in search of a creature named Big Red, the title of the film’s central painting. McNaughton uses delirious video effects, including electronic superimpositions and reverse playback to underscore and enhance the idea of planar flux. It sounds modern, practically sci-fi, but it once again returns to the roots of Condo’s re-imagination of art history. ‘Could I be the court painter for an alien king?’ Can art bring fantasy to life?