Jeff Koons: Rabbit, Balloon Dog, MJ and Bubbles, Pink Panther, Bear and Policeman

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My regular correspondent was telling me how he had had a conversation with someone else I know, about how they both disliked Jeff Koons' work - especially since I'd been telling people about his exhibition that's going on right now at the MCA in Chicago. To which my reply was:

Interesting. For me it's just stunning the scale and subtlety of the work. If nothing else, what you notice most about his work up close is the fine and detailed use of materials. Take the balloon animal bunny rabbit - it has a balloon animal carrot, which is just fantastic. The idea that you would fashion out of chrome and steel something that is otherwise so fragile - is just breathtaking. With the giant dog, the fact that they replicate the balloon knot at the tip - the bit that looks like an odd belly button - is superb.

He has one work where a large bear is being conspiratorial with a old style English bobby. He has a pink panther hugging a mermaid. And what's not to love about a golden Michael Jackson with is golden monkey? But yes, it strikes me that the Nth degree of whatever contemporary art moves towards has so much to do with exactly the experience of material - of touch, or the visual notion of what something would feel like.

And so much of it is shiny. I couldn't stop smiling throughout the exhibition. I was squatting down and trying to look at the items in as much detail and perspective as I could when one of the black rent-a-cops began basically mocking me saying "it's not a car, sir" but I find the complexity and immense simplicity of the giant balloon animals just stunning.

My correspondent's response was to talk about some of the problems of making art "accessible" through exaggeration - about people who win awards and prizes because their work takes on a large thing of subtlety that should have the heft of reality, and yet reduces it into something exaggerated and simplistic - in a way people can find so much more easier to absorb. He also talked about how people can tend to "steal" things - using something rendered by someone else and simply reusing it or enlarging that thing. And in so doing essentially appropriating the other person's work as their own. My response:

I think you're absolutely right, that people can tend to lean on the iconography of "other things" as a means of burnishing their own credentials, and that kind of hackery is exactly plagued by this kind of simplicity and exaggeration - being hyper-indian etc. But I'd like to think there's a difference between exaggeration and scale. Because I object to the use of extremity more than a bunch of people - I even object to the way philosophers try to define existence by making wild surmises at the extreme ends of (only vaguely possible and wildly hypothetical) human experience. But artists and writers are capable of creating objects and narratives of such grandeur and scope as to be exactly breathtaking. In that way they would seem to be using spectacle not as a means of titillation, but as a means of accessing extremes of emotion within the individual.

But what seperates Titanic from King Lear is exactly the fineness and quality of the detail. Not that I'm saying Titanic was put together in a slapdash manner, but it is not going to have the same rigour of composition and consideration as a film or narrative of more heft and substance. In part it's this confidence in the ability of real artists to imbue the microcosm of their works with that consistency of detail that surely sets them apart from hacks. It's how people can really tell from reading a small section of a writer's work that the greater work, if not his/her corpus is worth something. Because close up, to the minute detail, it all pays off even at the level of the dot stroke or punctuation.

I think of Koons' work very much in the tradition of Duchamps - though in Koons' case he's even more conscious of the necessity for detail in order to achieve his effect. We might think it's really easy to make a giant balloon animal, but it's constructed out of a huge amount of steel and chrome - it weighs exactly tonnes, and yet it's representing something that is otherwise fragile and almost delicate.

When it comes to what I assume to be the more fundamental issues of choice, composition, color, shape etc. it would seem to matter less the material you work with (oils, paints, canvas, matchbook covers, glue), than the arrangement of items. And it's not as if Koons is saying he invented the balloon animal - he's not passing himself off as the creator of the pink panther - he's relying exactly on your recognition of the item from a separate context as a means of achieving his effect. In part it's about how transposing something into a different medium changes things - how the use of materials is exactly transformative in that context.

If we understand the totality of what distanciation does - really understand the full shape and effect of any metaphor - we start to see the full picture. Because metaphors use the unexpected to accurately depict a recognizable reality that we exactly recognize beyond the distancing of the metaphor itself. Which is why even when people say "When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table", we know what they mean. But while it is a means of accurately depicting reality, it is also a rhetorical act - it serves to impose the artist's world view upon you. We are being persuaded to view the sky in this way, just as Hopper's paintings try to persuade us of a certain sense of alienation in the landscape of the city - something he does by focusing on unexpected things, ordinary things that would otherwise not be subject of such focus.

In many ways, I would argue that this is exactly what is happening with Tony Fitzpatrick's work - that it's very much about juxtaposition - so much so that Maggie instantly recognizes it as her city. But maybe not so much the city as she knows it, but her father's view of the city.

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This page contains a single entry by subtitles published on July 20, 2008 1:02 AM.

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