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Jeff Koons - Now

6 July 2016 | Tom Faber

Known for his metal balloon animals and fetching some of the highest prices ever paid for art, Jeff Koons is a polarizing figure in the art world. We explore ‘Now’, the new retrospective of his work at Newport Street Gallery, where all the pieces are drawn from Damien Hirst’s personal collection.



“Or maybe that’s the point?”

This is the sentence that enters my brain whenever I level criticism at Jeff Koons. His art deflects critique like light from polished steel.

Koons makes you think in circles. His early works were accessible - pointed comments on the fetishization of consumer culture. But as his fame rose, his art became bogglingly valuable. His Balloon Dog (Orange) broke the world record for the highest price paid for an artwork by a living artist, a cool $58.4 million. Does this fact beautifully underline his point? Or does it mean he sold out to the system he was criticizing?

It’s hard to know what to think. Koons’ eerie media presence doesn’t help. His comments to the press are strewn with references to psychological liberation and self-actualisation; soundbites ripped straight from a cheap self-help book. Is he a brilliant cultural commentator, so devoted to his message that his very life becomes part of his art? Or an evil genius, gleefully hammering the last polished nail into modern art’s dignity and humanity?

The new exhibition of Koons’ work at the Newport Street Gallery won’t help you answer these questions. The gallery belongs to Damien Hirst, and all of the pieces on display are from Hirst’s private collection – as a young artist he viewed Koons as something of an idol. The connection between the two is clear. Both are profoundly divisive modern artists who uncomfortably toe the line between art and commerce.
 
New Hoover Quik Broom, New Hoover Celebrity IV, 1980. © Jeff Koons
 
In Koons’ best pieces, many of which are found in the exhibition’s first few rooms, there is always a subversion at play. His wall-mounted hoovers from the 80’s resemble alien spacecrafts or, if you prefer, genitalia. They hang before blinding strip-lights like religious symbols, sterile products presented as spiritual icons. They also ask questions, in their neutral way, about function – these machines were made to pick up dirt yet they hang spotless on the wall, never used or sullied. If you shear a manufactured object from its destiny, what are you left with?

The work displays a reverence for culture, both ‘high’ and ‘low’. Nike adverts are framed on the wall and classical sculpture is replicated in garish, glaring steel. Three basketballs are suspended in a fishtank, bisected by the waterline. A metal train, for all the world like a child’s toy, is in fact a decanter filled with bourbon. The attention to craft and production is painfully meticulous, if not evident. For example, Koons met a Nobel laureate physicist to calibrate a solution which would keep the basketballs precisely half-submerged, and the train is deliberately made with stainless steel, the only metal that would preserve the alcohol indefinitely. The best pieces combine this precision with a visceral impact: what could be more lethal than a life jacket cast in bronze?

Between the giant bowls of eggs, semi-pornographic photography and metal beach toys is one of the pieces Koons is most famous for – a steel balloon animal. The monkey is four metres tall. Its cobalt surface gleams, reflecting everything around it (it’s important for Koons that viewers can see themselves in his work). Photos cannot do justice to its scale, nor to how much it resembles a balloon, down to the minute wrinkles where the ‘rubber’ has been twisted. It’s incredibly tempting to reach out and touch it. This is obviously forbidden.

If there is an overarching theme to be drawn from the selection of Koons’ work at the gallery, it’s the idea of preservation. Many of the pieces present objects that were made to be used, that would one day deflate, wear out or grow useless. By preserving these objects, Koons is saving them from ever dying, but also from ever living. The balloon monkey will never be played with, the brass snorkel will never breathe. This idea reflects back on us in a thousand ways; on our society that eats healthily, goes jogging, buys more, works harder – people that spend so much time trying to exist in a perfect state that they never really live.

Or perhaps you think that Koons is just a chancer, that his work is meaningless. Maybe he’s the emperor whose new clothes are painstakingly realized in stainless steel.

Well, maybe that’s the point.

Jeff Koons - Now is at Newport Street Gallery until 16th October. Admission is free.
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