Art & Culture in Chicago

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Everything is Perfect: Jeff Koons at the MCA

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Jeff Koons is probably Michael Jackson’s favorite artist.

They must have pretty much the same values, not taking into account Jackson’s infamous charges, and they certainly have similar aesthetics. They also both have a penchant for high-budget production.  Michael Jackson’s music videos have always been ridiculously expensive, to this day he holds the record for most expensive music video ever made, and Koons has been neck-and-neck with Damien Hirst for the most expensive living artist award for years.

Maybe I’m inclined to make a connection between Koons and Jackson because their work makes me feel the same way.  I love Michael Jackson’s music; I think it’s some of the best music ever made, and definitely the best pop music.  That sentiment can’t be swayed by his car-wreck of a personal life.  Similarly, I can’t hold Koons slight sliminess against him.  His work is curious and fun and it makes me happy, and that’s nice.  I enjoy Koons’ work with my gut because it doesn’t seem right to interpret his work with my brain, at least not at first.  And it seems like that’s what he would want.  In an interview with Robert Ayers last spring, Koons said, “When you view work, it’s not just an intellectual experience. It’s also a physical, biological experience. People like work that makes them feel a certain way. I want my work to have a certain charge, and I think that people who view the work like it, that intensity.”

That charge could be felt when I entered the Koons exhibit at the MCA last month.  It was like entering a theme park.  Immediately after walking through the revolving front door, I saw his giant blue Hanging Heart above me like a piñata that’s too beautiful to break, an awe-inspiring indicator of the spectacle to come.

The show was partitioned into 2 giant white rooms, and I entered the left one first.  I was immediately greeted by a bustling wonderland of people, winding around Koons’ lush and vibrant objects.  It reminded me of the scene in every fantasy sci-fi movie when the main character first enters the parallel universe, filled with funny-looking creatures who inhabit a much more technologically and spiritually advanced world.  During the hour-or-so I spent in the exhibit, I saw people laughing, blushing, cringing, rolling their eyes, debating, and talking much louder than the normal museum whispers.  I even found myself laughing on a couple occasions, one being when a guard had to reprimand a 30-something year old guy for flipping the florescent lights on and off on Koons’ sculpture, Toaster.  I found myself blushing while standing under a painting of a naked lady whose butt cheeks were bigger than my face and whose boobs were the most perfectly silicone orbs I have ever seen.  

The painting, Elvis, is part of Koons’ Popeye series, which seems to disappoint everyone. The paintings in the series are a lot like Rosenquists’ collage paintings, but made later, and generally not as interesting conceptually.  Peter Schjeldahl put it well when he wrote in The New Yorker, “The pictures are painstakingly crafted and impressive in technique. But these are secondary virtues. Painting is a medium of concerted imagination, symbolizing consciousness. It’s not a flat dump for miscellaneous ideas. The anonymous touch and the no-comment form that serve Koons well in sculpture, by streamlining the shock of preposterous objects, deaden on canvas.”  Although the collage-like paintings don’t seem to perform when surrounded by the magnificent sculptures, Play-Doh, the only painting included from his Celebration series, was a wonderful gem and complemented the giant stainless-steel balloon sculptures nicely.  

The steel sculptures of the Celebration series, many modeled after shaped balloons, are perhaps the most popular and acclaimed artworks by Koons.  Three different editions of Balloon Dog, a ten-foot-tall steel replica of the childhood favorite, were concurrently shown at the MCA, the Met, and the palace of Versailles this summer.  About the beloved sculpture, Jerry Saltz wrote: “It’s a cross between a classical equestrian sculpture and a Toys ’R’ Us display, and Koons has called it “a Trojan horse.” I think of it as an anti–golden calf. Yet, except for moneybag collectors, no one worships Balloon Dog. It worships us, basking in our presence, displaying its fake luxury (steel, not silver or bronze), and reflecting everything around it in hallucinogenic distortion. The philosopher Thales said, “Everything is full of gods.” Balloon Dog is full of everything except gods, a de-deified sculpture that radiates irony and Eros. It’s an updated version of Duchamp’s urinal.”

Most of my personal favorites in the exhibit are from the Made in Heaven series, referred to as Koons’ “strangest excursion” by Schjeldahl.  Most of the works in the series feature Jeff and his former wife, Ilona Staller, loving each other.  The sexually explicit works from the series were hung behind a wall to conceal the content from the faint of heart, making the small space like a sideshow at a carnival.  Instead of circus freaks, though, Koons’ demonstrations of physical love are on display, giant genitalia and all.  All the pieces exhibited from the Made in Heaven series, including wooden carvings of a well-groomed poodle and a well-groomed vase of flowers, scream decadence and utopia.

The casualness and exuberance of the exhibit was refreshing and made me feel silly for taking notes, but I’m glad I did because I overheard some curious and sometimes hilarious conversations and felt obliged to copy them down.  One spectator commented, “I would rather see [Balloon Dog] in Millennium Park than the bean.”  I would have to agree.  Also, while sauntering though the space, I kept on catching myself window-shopping rather than evaluating the work.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted the wooden Large Vase of Flowers in my dining room, and Dolphin in my kitchen. 

            In the end, though, I felt satisfied.  I didn’t walk out wanting, I walked out feeling like I had been privileged to participate in some sort of upper-class indulgence.  That accessibility is what makes Koons’ work so successful. About that accessibility he said in a 1986 interview: “[my work] functions for everyone.  For the lower and middle class it will lead to an ultimate state of rest; for the upper class it will lead to an unprecedented state of confidence.  So all members of society would benefit.  There would be no losers.”  It’s true.  Looking at Koons’ work may leave you feeling vacant, maybe even duped somehow, but at least you don’t leave feeling like a loser.

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Written by Kelly Reaves

October 1, 2008 at 6:45 am

Posted in art, feature, review

Tagged with , , , ,

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