Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jeff Koons: Basketball star.

What happens when you set Jeff Koons loose in one of the leading contemporary art collections in the world?  Skin Fruit at New York's New Museum.  Koons was asked to sort through the extensive art collection of Greek tycoon Dakis Joannou. Koons (who has never curated a museum show before) was asked to curate this show because his work inspired Joannou to start his collection in 1985.  Only one work in the show is by Koons and it's a very early work that would have been part of that inspiration. (One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985. Glass, iron, water, and basketball.)  I suppose it's no surprise that Koons's career took off thanks to basketball since Shaq's making a name for himself as a museum curator.

Let's start with this question, "What's that title all about?" Well I'm certainly not qualified to answer the questions so I'll let the New Museum, "Koons’s title 'Skin Fruit' alludes to notions of genesis, evolution, original sin, and sexuality. 'Skin' and 'fruit' evoke the tensions between interior and exterior, between what we see and what we consume."  I suppose those ideas come through in the show, particularly since there's a lot of work about life, death, and sex. But I'm still not sure the titles works. 

It doesn't come as a surprise that these are the themes Koons would focus on.  While his own work offers a shiny veneer of Pop-art cultural fun, the real themes tend to be less snappy.  His work is fascinated with breath and life.  From his bronze aqualung to the balloon dogs, Koons' works often attempts to freeze breath eternally.  And certainly Koons work is about sex.  From the explicit images featuring him and his ex-wife to his more recent paintings, sexuality has always played a major role in his art.

What did surprise me about this show is its focus on the messy.  Much of the work shown in Skin Fruit is visceral and urgent, with pieces that feel haphazard or thrown together.  I was surprised by this because Koons is so much about meticulously crafted objects that dazzle with precision and beauty.  I don't want to say that some of this work was ugly, but frequently it tended toward the grotesque.  And it's not just the art, the installation is chaotic and cramped.  I think this show could have lost 25 percent of the works and been better off for it.

However even disappointing exhibits offer opportunities to see interesting work.  Here are few that caught my attention:

While I criticized this show for work that is haphazard and not up to the execution standards of Koons, there are some fantastic exceptions.  First is Liza Lou's Super Sister, (1999, cast polyester, resin, and glass beads.)  Lou's beaded works are always spectacular and this is no exception. 

Two works by Maurizio Cattelan were also notable not only for their beautiful workmanship, but also for their impact.  Both works dealt with death, asking questions about how we all participate in the killing of each other.  First is Now (2004, polyester resin, wax, human hair, clothes, and wood.) This work was tucked away in a dark corner of the museum adding to the strange reverence the work evoked.

Also from Cattelan is All (2007) which the New York Times called, "A largely pointless exercise in high-production values."  I disagree, although this is definitely some high-production values. The work consists of eight life-size body bags carved from Carrara marble. Its stopping power comes not just from the technical beauty, but also from the eerie reminder of the permanency of death.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster are masters of illusion creating sculptures that look like piles of rubbish.  But shine a spotlight on those chaotic jumbles and you discover shadows, generally of human silhouettes, suggesting that who we are as humans is frequently more complex than meets the eye.  Here, they are represented by Black Narcissus, (2006, black poly sulfide rubber, wood, and light projector) a sort of self portrait.  The sculpture consists of a jumble of casts of Webster's fingers and Noble's penis in various states of arousal.  When a light is cast on the sculpture, a silhouette of the artists' profiles appears on the wall behind.  Sure it's weird.  But you gotta give Tim and Sue credit for putting it out there.

There were a surprising number of naked or near-naked people hanging on museum walls in New York City this trip.  Skin Fruit features Pavel Althamer's Schedule of the Crucifix (2007) which features a wooden cross hanging on the wall.  Each day at about 3:00 p.m. a performer dressed in street clothes enters the museum, changes into a loin cloth, climbs a ladder, and positions himself on the cross.  He then remains there for as long as he can.

You can see these and a whole lot more contemporary art at Skin Fruit  through June 6.

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