Monday, February 9, 2015

Jeff Koons. La Rétrospective @ Centre Pompidou, Paris

Jeff Koons Centre Pompidou
Jeff Koons, Gazing ball (Ariadne), 2014
When I met my friend Loren at the entrance to the Koons exhibition last night I promised that I would leave all my preconceptions and judgments at the door. I have never liked Koons’ work. I have always thought of it as predictable, superficial, riding on the wave of the moment and destined for tomorrow’s dustbin. Lucky then that I decided to go with no preconceptions, because I was not only pleasantly surprised, I was delighted. I was thoroughly fascinated from beginning to end of the exhibition, and I think the last time I laughed as much at an exhibition was the JimmyDurham extravaganza a few years ago.

Selfie with Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (magenta), 1994-2000

While I admit that my preconceptions and ignorance about Koons’ work were ill-founded, I do think that seeing it in a single artist retrospective gives the work a depth and a brilliance that a solo piece vying for attention in among works by other artists just doesn’t have. Beginning with plastic flowers and bunnies, hoovers in Perspex boxes, the exhibition goes on to develop through Koons’ extraordinarily varied and increasingly complex oeuvre. It seemed as though with each advance in his career, Koons added yet another layer to the aesthetic and intellectual resonance of his work.

Jeff Koons Centre Pompidou
Jeff Koons, Inflatable Floewrs, Tall Purple, tall Orange," 1979
That said, even from the beginning, there is a depth and a seriousness to the works: the vacuum cleaners in Perspex boxes, sitting on fluourescent white lights, repeated one after another with obvious reference to Dan Flavin and Donald Judd’s work, had a sophistication to them that I hadn’t previously recognized. The influences of and reference to high art in Koons’ midst are seamlessly merged with an “in your face” discourse on American consumerism. He riffs on the desire and erotics of the consumable object to make dense, impenetrable, and yet, searingly critical sculptural works. Effectively, according to Koons, high art is just another object to be displayed, salivated over and bought. From the beginning, the many languages of Koons’ art function to throw the work into a dialogue with pop culture, consumerism, advertising, Minimalism, modernism, postmodernism, and the list goes on. The references are never subtle— for example, repeated representations of air, light, display and commodification are obvious pointers to Duchamp—but they are always part of a dense layers of intellectual and sensuous significances.
Jeff Koons, Play Doh, 1995-2008
Koons’ understanding of many languages is staggering: American culture, the history of art, kitsch, pornography, the changing role of the artist as celebrity in the 20th century, not to mention consumerism, even children’s games. Koons is the Renaissance man of postmodernism. Koons then works these concerns into an extraordinarily dexterous use of a vast array of media: photography, painting, neon, wood, casting bronze, glass, mirrors, light, chrome, stainless steel, found objects, wood, computer generated images, porcelain – and I am sure I will have forgotten some. And perhaps most surprising is that each material and medium is given a thought provoking treatment. There is nothing trite about this art. Indicative of the complexity of what might otherwise appear superficial, is the equally extraordinary emotional range solicited by the works: we are moved through anger, laughter, shock, sometimes in front of the same piece. The art is full of surprises. And although there are themes that come up again and again across the oeuvre, the layer upon layer of mirrors and meanings, results in concerns always being seen from new and different perspectives.

Jeff Koons, Popeye, 2009-2011

We have all seen the balloon dog made of stainless steel. At least, all of us in Paris have because it was on the publicity material for the controversial exhibition in the Palais de Versailles. Up close, the dog, and indeed all the mirrored sculptures of this vein, are fascinating. They bring together the incompatible media of balloons and stainless steel. The two could not be more different: the one ephemeral, the other intransigent, the balloon inflatable, the steel so highly polished it becomes a mirrored surface that throws everything back on the spectator through reflection. Thanks to the curvature and number of the surfaces, the reflections are multiple, evasive, distorted, apparently commenting on the perversions of desire and consumerism.

Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Stainless steel with all its connotations is made gorgeous, sumptuous, erotic in Koons' sculptures that are made of it, paintings that represent it and objects that use it. Like all of Koons' works, through such contradictions, the objects are made strange, unrecognizeable. A lifeboat made of cast iron, a middle class black family, bigger than life mantelpiece statuettes of Michael Jackson. The contradictions create tensions and never ending questions. At the same time that these figures, or an exquisite glass sculpture that is one of a number of reproductions of the artist having sex with his pornstar wife, make us laugh and ogle and desire, I kept sensing that I was the butt of the joke. There is something about Koons’ sculpture that reminds me of Dame Edna Everage’s wont to make us laugh at the expense of the ordinary men and women, who are in effect, us. Oversized porcelain kitsch sculptures, of the kind that grandma had on her mantelpiece might be funny on display at the Centre Pompidou, but they were held very dear in their original form and size.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986

In the ultimate layer of irony, Koons himself as an artist, porn star, actor, lover, is the target of the strongest satire. I remember studying Koons in an undergraduate class on postmodernism and I didn’t get it. I guess I needed to be immersed in the world of the satirization of the artist-as-self in order to fully understand the critique not only  of self, but the art gallery, the art world, and everyone who enters these social realms. I am not sure that this response is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the laugh Koons has at the world’s expense, but because there’s always another layer behind the obvious and the not so obvious, he doesn’t have all the say in how we interpret his art. And this of course, is what makes it exciting, brilliant and enduring.

All photographs copyright Frances Guerin

No comments: