Leaving the Jeff Koons exhibition at the Ashmolean, I was left with the mixed feelings of gladness and repulsion; gladness that I had seen an exhibition that is intriguingly complex, if only for how problematic it is, and disgust that was born of the realisation that his work was both artistically unoriginal and sexually regressive.
When accosted by the flagrant sexuality of the bulging, buxom Balloon Venus or the Antiquity series, one assumes that Koons is vaguely progressive, flouting societal norms, and pushing artistic boundaries. The potent mix of nude Classical statuary, vibrant pointillistic backgrounds, and a crude stone carving of a morphed penis and labia, all overlaid by further sexualised graffiti, point towards an artist at ease with sex and sexuality.
This is combined with relentless glitz, building to its climax in the second of the three rooms, starting with Gazing Ball (Birdbath) in the first, before moving onto gigantic – verging on obscene – monoliths like the Venus or the Ballerina. As such, it can be hard to form an immediate coherent response to what is undeniably a visually overwhelming exhibition.
Upon leaving the Ashmolean, one is left with little but a dull awareness of Koons’ lack of originality, tempered by the feeling that one probably ought to laud the exhibition. After all, the very choice of the Ashmolean for this exhibition seems to vindicate the edginess of Koons’ works. The archaeological and artistic contents of the world’s oldest university museum are boldly juxtaposed with the vibrancy and modernity of the exhibition. Koons himself is aware of this, stating: “I couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today.” Ironically, he seems to bask in the prestige and venerability of the museum.
The shock value of Koons’ work is virtually void
This slight discomfort stems in part from the prevalent sexuality in the second and third rooms. Unlike the original works by Titian and Reubens, not to mention the Belvedere Torso, upon which Koons has based much of his canvas work, Koons’ use of nudity is not a celebration of human beauty, nor a testament to the technical skills and subtleties of the individual artist. Who now sees a breast, a vagina, a penis, a naked body, and is genuinely shocked? No-one, least of all in an art gallery, the place where nudity has been most normalised, though also undoubtably filtered. Art certainly does have a political role: it can, and should be used to affront prejudice, challenge norms and bring about change, but the shock value of Koons’ work is virtually void.
It is no longer daring or bold to incorporate nudity and sexuality in art, solely for the sake of it, as it once was. Instead, the overriding feel of the work is that it is stuck in the atmosphere of the 1970s, where Koons started out, just without the political saliency. It feels as if he is using the sexuality of his work to draw in viewers who in turn assume his work is assertive. In essence, this is an objectification of the naked body (in this exhibition, overwhelmingly female) to promote himself and evidence of a crass rejection of agency and humanity that in other settings we rightly rile against.
It is odd that the aspect of the exhibition which is most impressive, namely the technical execution of the works, is done by uncredited employees
If there is something uncomfortable about the use of sexuality in Koons’ work, there is also something not quite right with the exhibition as a whole. Quite simply, most of the work isn’t actually his.
This is evident from the beginning of the exhibition, with Equilibrium, a basketball suspended in the exact centre of a liquid-filled tank. Though technically impressive, when Koons couldn’t work out a way to keep the ball at perfect equilibrium, he had to get Nobel physicist Richard Feynman to do it for him. Likewise, the balloon models – the Rabbit, the Venus, and the Ballerina – all show a remarkable mastery of aluminium in the rendering and crimping to achieve the fragility and fullness that is so striking. However, Koons did not do this himself, instead paying for two German production teams of between 90-120 to execute the work. The reflective chrome balls positioned in the first and third rooms, be it the Gazing Ball (Birdbath), or the purple spheres shelved on the replica Old Masters, though hand blown, are similarly produced by other people.
This is certainly an exhibition worth visiting, regardless of whether one likes the work and even if the ticket price of £15 pounds does seem to encapsulate its latent materialism. It is odd that the aspect of the exhibition which is most impressive, namely the technical execution of the works, is done by uncredited employees, whilst Koons’ own contribution, the artistic conception, is the most unsatisfying, vacuous, and regressive.
Jeff Koons is on at the Ashmolean from 7th February to 9th June 2019
Image Credit: The Ashmolean