Every year we have a little Christmas ritual, my kids all choose a Christmas tree decoration and I sew it on to their stockings. I love it because they begin to accumulate over the years. The decorations become a window into their interests and what attracts them at a certain age.
My daughters both have a shocking pink Jeff Koons-esque balloon dog from a few years back, probably inspired from ‘A Night at the Museum’ which sees Koons’s work come to life.
Instantly recognisable, fun, playful, shiny and memorable. I guess that is just like Koons’s art. If you come to the Ashmolean that is what you are going to get. But are you going to like it? Well that is another question altogether.
I visit the exhibition early on a Tuesday morning with my friend, who happens to be a museum curator, and her lovely little 19 month old. You would think this exhibition would lend itself to bringing children, it is bright, fun and engaging. I get much pleasure from watching the little chap signing all the animals and calling out in glee when he sees a pig or a rabbit. Luckily he isn’t old enough to give me any awkward questions around some of the art works.
There is much that is recognisable here, the big, bold shapes and reflective surfaces. There is a thrill to see them in the flesh.
I can’t help think many look like giant Christmas tree decorations, supersized versions of childhood delight. Up close the shiny surfaces seem almost molten, you expect them to shape-shift like the T-1000 from Terminator 2. When you peer even closer the recognisable morphs into abstraction.
So how do we mere mortals interpret these pieces? Well here Koons helps us out with his interpretation –
I would hope the viewer could come in and just get excited as they would start to be visually stimulated from images. I would hope that it’s very intuitive. It’s not about using history or technique against the viewer.
To know is an enrichment , but you don’t have to, it’s back to art not being an intimidating thing. You don’t have to bring anything to it other than your own life experience because it’s really about you and your interactions.
I love this because it opens up the art, contemporary art that can quiet honestly be intimidating if you feel you don’t ‘get it’.
On one hand Koons seems to be saying it is ok to enjoy this, or not. It is okay if you only enjoy this as a large shiny rabbit.
This experience is about you – your desire, your interest, your participation, your relationship with the image.
But moving through the rooms I read another panel and here is where I find the anachronism of Koons’s work.
People are going to have their own perceptions. They will look at things differently. I think looking at art, the way people respond to it, gives a kind of view into how open people are to the world around them.
And if they’re closed about really exposing themselves to a painting or to a sculpture then you can imagine they’re probably relatively closed to other experiences.
I have a bit of an issue with this. Ultimately I believe we are coming back to the snobbery of contemporary art. If you don’t ‘get it’ then there is something narrow, missing and uncultured in your life. If you don’t ‘get it’ or ‘expose yourself’ to it, it is because you are lacking or other.
As playful and fun as Koons work is, as seemingly engaging as it is, if this is at the root of it all than I am left with a nasty after-taste.
Perhaps my analogy to Christmas tree decorations is apt here. We all look forward to Christmas, the bright lights, xmas trees and presents. We indulge ourselves in all that is rich and tempting. But when the presents are opened and Christmas dinners eaten we are quite glad for it all to be over.
Maybe Koons is nothing more than a guilty pleasure but it has left me feeling a little bit empty for all the shiny appeal.
Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean runs from 7th Feb – 9th Jun 2019
I received free press tickets for this exhibition.