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Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008

In Defense of Banality

Art Review

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   To paraphrase Chicago's adopted art star and provocateur Jeff Koons, if his work doesn't reach viewers through the intellect, it'll grab them by the genitals. At the very least, the Museum of Contemporary Art's comprehensive survey of the artist's iconic sculptural works, new paintings and companion exhibit, "Everything's Here: Jeff Koons and his experience of Chicago," engage the viewer in myriad ways, not all of them prurient.

  Jeff Koons' work and vision have been controversial since he unleashed the Banality series on the art world in 1988. His ability to transform Pop junk into high art is indebted to Warhol, Duchamp and Dali, all of whom he borrows from liberally. References to Warhol in the Popeye series and to Duchamp's readymades in Hoover Celebrity III are obvious, but to further contextualize Koons' aesthetic requires a trip upstairs from the main attraction. In the companion exhibit "Everything's Here," the artist's relationship to The Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, groups of artists developing outside the clean lines and concrete minimalism of Manhattan, is explained on placards with plain language. Vestiges of Ed Paschke's garish portraits and H.C. Westermann's Dance of Death, the latter of which Koons used as a ground for the Elvis works, are evident in Koons' figural, photorealist paintings.

  It is difficult to talk about Koons without discussing sex. From the walls of a small, hidden corridor at the back of the main exhibition, flanked by warnings to parents about the unsuitability of the contents ahead, hang three canvasses from the controversial Made in Heaven series, featuring Koons and his former wife, Italian ex-parliamentarian and porn star Ilona Staller. Silver Shoes, the largest of the three, is an immense blowup of Staller and a half-flaccid Koons. The images are exhibitionistic and highly stylized; Staller wears the usual trappings of sex work: white fishnets, two-inch red talons and the ecstatic expression of a practiced professional. If Koons hoped to access spiritual transcendence through sex, his intention is lost in the cheap aesthetics of Hustler and Leg Parade.

  Oddly, Koons' larger-than-life toys are more erotically charged than the overtly sexual works from Made in Heaven. It is in Koons' visual hyperbole and pneumatic optimism that sexuality is truly playful. All Koons' surfaces are sensuous; even the ponderous rigidity of bronze, as in Lifeboat, from the Equilibrium series, seems to indecently burst from the pressure of over-inflation. With Balloon Dog (Orange) from the Celebration series, he similarly transforms a weightless, ephemeral child's toy into an absurdly large, highly reflective, stainless steel mammoth. In the engorged tail, the vulvar twists of the knot in the dog's nose and the implied pressure of the air pushing against the taut surface of the balloon, resides a pre-climactic, erotic tension.

  Bear and Policeman, from the Banality series, is Koons' ode to Hummel figurine kitsch. A large brown bear wearing a striped T-shirt holds a whistle, his arm casually draped around the policeman's shoulders. The relatively diminutive constable, a symbol of authority, contrasts comically with the bear's monstrous size and relative harmlessness. Looking helplessly up at the bear, the expression on the policeman's face holds the key to enjoying Koons' work: a temporary suspension of adulthood, a return to seeing the world through a child's perspective. Koons seems to hint that the adult world, with its explicit content, greed and shame, is worth staving off.

"Jeff Koons" is on view at the MCA through Sept. 21. "Everything's Here" on view through Oct. 26. Go to www.mcachicago.org.