Review: George Condo at Sprüth Magers Gallery

George Condo has always been besotted with pushing paint around canvas, ever since his first show in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago. The pleasure is infectious.

The New York-based painter, now at Sprüth Magers Gallery for his first L.A. solo exhibition since 1999, is still smitten. Most of the 11 bracing paintings, all from the last two years, start in modern Spain. Goya and Picasso are launching pads for Condo’s irresistible scribbling.

But all is not sweetness and light.

An abstraction interjects a furious tangle of black paint into the otherwise blank, pure-white “Entrance to the Void,” creating a visual snare that blocks a common metaphor of easy passage to oblivion. Apparent autobiography turns up nearby in a two-panel work, which collects a quartet of brutally gouged heads in shrieking red and black, facial features scrambled. The work is bluntly titled “Self Portraits Facing Cancer 2.”  

Elsewhere, four “diagonal portraits” cascade like rock slides from one upper corner to the lower corner opposite, piling up sharp, black-edged, angular shapes. Cerebral Cubist structure is the scaffolding for Expressionist color and aggressive paint-handling. Thoughtfulness gives way to graphic emotional punch.

An obvious source for these bust-length heads, each seven feet tall, is the black-eyed stare in a couple of Picasso’s self-portraits. One dates from 1907, when he was 25 and just breaking through, while the other is a skull-like head in crayon, done when he was 90 and at the brink of his demise. (Picasso died nine months later.) Condo compresses a lifelong overview into each work.

Three paintings based on Goya’s tender, full-length portrait of noble Spanish writer Maria Rita Barrenechea, Marquesa de La Solana, are poignant in their frustrated beauty. Tall, erect, poised and set before an expansive but darkening landscape, she wears a traditional black dress and embroidered slippers. Perched atop her head is a big, eccentric floral bow in bright pink.

Condo somewhat simplifies Goya’s forms, before disrupting her face with a furious scrawl. He shreds the delicate lace shawl around her shoulders. The Marquesa’s gaunt and sallow face, which spoke of her imminent death, is obliterated. Like Goya, Condo paints an agonizing wrestling match with mortality and love, albeit in a tone more despairing than melancholic.

Sprüth Magers Gallery, 5900 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 634-0600, through June 11. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.spruethmagers.com

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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