The plastic narration found in this work from 1994 by George Condo represents a reassertion of a type of compositional structure not found since the late works of Cézanne. Like the French master, and his concern with the structuring of advances made by the more formal impressionists, for example, the de-materialization of subject matter and broken surface tension, Condo reformulates and codifies similar concerns, a type of metaphysical space that one is allowed to access, a place of possible dramatic interpretation similarly found in the work of De’Chirico, Magritte and more recently Guston.
Just as Cézanne’s bathers push space around in tightly knit compositional formats, Condo, in the painting “Lamentation of the Drinker,” allows a grouping of faceless humanoid’s to control and manipulate the residual of geometric and architectural space, while acting out odd histrionic episodes.
Approximately thirty figures occupy this canvas where great tragedy has just taken place, or is about to. The size of the canvas (65 x 81 inches) and the overall composition used represents the format of an eyeball shaped oval. This cycloptic orifice stares out toward the viewer. Dead center, figuratively and literally is the main group of figures witnessing the last (?) moments of “The Drinker.”
Imaginatively thought out, these groups of figures, three “beings”: hovering in space, seven others in severe panic and dressed in black observe or are reacting to the unfolding drama. Unlike Christian exegesis, where Christ, descending from the cross, his mother weeping uncontrollably or even losing consciousness is the main focus of meditation, Condo’s lamentation is a situation suspended between certainty and doubt, where many possibly scenarios could happen. Unless Condo’s main protagonist is experiencing rigor mortis (his arm being outstretched), or dead drunk, he could be alive. A strange group of robed figures look on in wonder and disbelief, others gesture in misunderstanding. If this work is not seen as an elaborately concealed study of certainty and doubt, or the ambiguous nature of perception and belief itself, how else can we decipher the gestures, groupings and interaction between these faceless figures?
Kenneth Rexroth, in a short essay about the artist Morris Graves mentions “deliberate formal mysteriousness…analogous to that found in primitive cult objects,” there is much of that found in this painting, a visually complex riddle. It could be seen as a strange cinematic reflection projected on our memory, always needing to be re-deciphered, its meaning re-established. Therefore, it should not be so strange that the figures that occupy Condo’s “Lamination of the Drinker” have no distinguishing facial features.
Like Cézanne’s bathers they exist within themselves, purely in the space of painting.