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Jeff Koons

THEA LENARDUZZIThis July the Serpentine Gallery hosts the first major UK public exhibition of Jeff Koons' work, entitled "Jeff Koons: Popeye Series." Best known for works such as “Rabbit” (1986), “Balloon Dog” (1994-2000), and “Puppy” (2002) - sculptures casting inflatable toys on a spectacular scale - “Popeye Series” shrinks Koons' art to less dwarfing dimensions while keeping the ideas big, bold, and, debatably, beautiful and bouncy too. Koons explores a world where consumerism, childhood, and sexuality render problematic dichotomies of “good”/ “bad” taste, and durable/ disposable objects. In an “art” context, he teases us for our compulsive need to touch the “inflatable” toys; he taunts us for our desire to reassert the hard/soft boundary, asking us instead to take a spinach-leaf out of Popeye's book and say simply “I am what I am”- it is what it is. And what it is, is a party where Popeye comic-strips and monkey pool toys cavort with the equally buoyant and plastic breasts of porn stars; where glittery pants, moustaches and lobsters seduce art and porn-lovers alike, referencing Duchamp and Dalí, and Cicciolina (Koons' ex wife and porn-star-turned MP)-style poses in the same breath, fragranced with a mix of Moet and own-brand Cava. 

         The Serpentine has fallen head over heels for Koons, cooing “I am yours for the taking – my walls are white and waiting for your Midas touch.” Charmed by Koons, the Serpentine has given itself over to a gathering of paintings and sculptures that combine pop culture and art historical references in a familiar but ever-titillating way. Twenty-three works vie for our attention, including ones never-before seen by the public. “Acrobat” sees a replica ready-made lobster raise a glass and throw down the gauntlet to Dalí, taking things beyond  the famous Surrealist's 1936 “Lobster Telephone” to the point where “surreal” art finally delivers what its name promised; surmounting the barrier between the “real” and the “non-real” which is now irrelevant and perhaps most importantly, boring. Why should being a lobster exclude the possibility of being an acrobat? It doesn't, so stop being a kill-joy and join in the party.

         Mr. lobster wriggles his way into “Popeye” (2003) and “Elvis” (2003) which challenge our notion of what is worthy of joining the canons of the high-art elite of oil-painting: here, the cheap and expendable thrills of a porn star and a comic-strip icon are as time-consuming and labour-intensive as Poussin's 17th century portraits of French lords and ladies. Similarly, a porn star's smile is as groin-teasingly ambiguous as the Mona Lisa's, and her eyes equally as vacuous: in this way Koons' art works retro-actively to sexualise an otherwise frigid Mona Lisa, and, by transforming characters that usually lurk beneath the mattresses of naughty children and adults into public objects of art, he  renders them oddly neutered.  And Mr. Lobster is there to remind us that that's just the way of the world: 'childish' inflatable 'short-term' fun isn't any less valuable than serious and solid 'adult' culture. The fact that in 2007 Koons became the highest-selling living artist is a case in point: his “Hanging Heart” sold at Sotheby's for £11.4 million.

         You will leave this exhibition reeling, feeling happy, angry, confused or confirmed in your outlook on modern life - most likely you will feel a mixture of all of the above; your head will be swirling with muscles, monkeys, mammaries and molluscs. (I realise that lobsters are technically crustaceans but for the purposes of marketing art-consumables I like to think Koons would approve.)

         Whether you are a fan of Koons' work or not you cannot help but feel as inflated as the 'toys' were, or weren't - revelling in the realisation that the distinction no longer matters.

Thea Lenarduzzi

         

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