This exhibition by Jeff Koons at Damien Hirst‘s new gallery brings together two titans of the commercial art world. Sitting at first and second place of the world’s wealthiest (Hirst usually pips a rapidly closing Koons) they also top lists of the most influential living artists.
There are plenty of parallels within their work too. Neither are strangers to the art of appropriation: Koons takes children’s inflatable toys and re-constructs them in gleaming painted aluminium, Hirst has enlarged a spastics society figure, Viagra pill and an anatomical model. How about something in a vitrine? Koons is happy to grab ‘ready-made’ basketballs or Hoovers, whilst Hirst takes perhaps severed cows heads, sharks, skulls or pills. All are presented as reflections on life, death, beauty and consumerism.
Linking them too is a mutual appreciation. Hirst has actually collected Koons’ work for over twelve years and has amassed a significant body of the artists work, some of which is being shown in the UK for the first time within this exhibition.
Koons is considered to be one of the most significant artists of the last fifty years and it is therefore quite astonishing to say that Now is not only the first major UK exhibition to be devoted to the artist since Jeff Koons: Popeye Series, at the Serpentine in 2009 but the largest one to date. Spanning thirty-five years of the artist’s extraordinary career it features over thirty paintings, works on paper and sculptures dating from 1979 and including works from Inflatables, The New, Equilibrium, Luxury and Degradation, Made in Heaven, Popeye, and Hulk Elvis, amongst others.
The show begins with an early forerunner of one of Koons’ most enduring themes, the inflatable. Here we see a real inflatable in Flowers from 1979 – small flowers displayed on mirrored floor tiles. It is here presented alongside a number of his iconic Hoover sculptures from the early eighties – unused machines displayed in fluorescent-tube lighted acrylic boxes. Two of these Hoovers were actually included for Koons’s first solo show in New York 1980 and part of that installation – originally displayed in the museum’s storefront windows – has been reassembled for this exhibition.
These works show how Koons revels the everyday. Household goods to children toys and the kitsch are all readily employed in his approach to art, utilising mass market objects to communicate with the widest possible audience. The quotidien and fragile becomes monumental whist the ordinary is elevated to special.
There are plenty more of his recognisable works. The show continues with examples of his Total Equilibrium tanks where three basketballs are suspended in a vitrine of salt water – an allegory on unattainable states of being.
Further on a Jim Beam bourbon decanter of china and plastic has been rendered in aluminium. Said to be an “elegy to the age of steam and steel”, Koons’ said of this sculpture “I wanted to transform it and put it into a different metal but to preserve its soul, and that soul was the alcohol.”
We continue through most of the major series of Koons’ career. Ignoring the less interesting prints it is the sculptures that catch the eye – a five-metre high stainless steel Balloon Monkey in blue dating from 2013 occupies the whole of one of the side galleries. An inflatable dolphin and lobster dangle from the ceiling whist another lobster balances precariously on a chair and a bin. A seal and walrus are squeezed behind stack-away plastic seats.
The show culminates in the huge and impressive Play-Doh, a three-metre high mountain of brightly coloured kids plasticine, Surprisingly complex to construct it took Koons and his team over ten years to produce, the result so perfect that it is almost impossible to resist grabbing at the apparently squidgy material.
Only the second exhibition at the Newport Street Gallery space this is another highly impressive show. It confirms that there is more to Koons than simply high kitsch and eye-catching sculptures. There is a strong emotional charge to the work too. We are caught in an irrational and surreal world of fakery, unsure what to make of the oversized objects, impossible poses and improbable materials. At its heart it is an uncanny and unsettling experience. A Night at the Museum is made real – the toys are taking over.
For more information visit the Newport Street Gallery
To purchase a copy of Jeff Koons: visit here