Recently I’ve been slugging hard at why the Koons phenomena is all hype and no substance – the cotton candy of the art world – but then I discovered his paintings, which are much less known than his sculptures, and to my surprise in his newer ones he’s attempting to be more aesthetically complex, nuanced, cohesive, and even to slip in some substance.
I wrote about my favorite of his paintings in a much longer piece, which deconstructs them, and I fear most people will never scroll down that far. So this is an excerpt focusing on just one painting, but expanded to have details of the image. If you haven’t read that piece, and don’t know much about his paintings, you just need to know that he first makes collages on the computer, then has his assistants paint wall-sized, photorealistic versions of them in oils.
This is a new painting, and it appears that after messing about with collage for over five years, Koons has finally become adept enough at something to attempt an aesthetically pleasing and complex piece of art (though the underlings still had to paint it in a way that hearkens back to the proverbial washing the floor with a toothbrush).
What stopped me in my tracks upon encountering this image was the zig-zag mustard on the hot dog. Here we have food again, but this time it’s got attitude and isn’t just there to remind us how silly it is to have food in a painting and isn’t that wonderful to accept. The compositional energy is like a coiled spring. There’s even a pair of Casper’s legs springing off the far right bottom of the canvas.
Casper himself seems luminous because of the crisp lines, and the sleek black against the fields of white. There’s another hot dog leaping out of the bun because it’s terrified of him. Wait a second, there’s a connection between two of the images in the same painting? What’s this? Once my eye found the terrified frankfurter, I noticed a new device, which is a sort of round patch Koons is using as a picture plane flattener. They have their own textures as well, and the eye is invited to compare the weave of the various dots and ovals, which remind me just a bit of the dots on Wonder Bread wrappers.
There is of course the trademark inflatable foil animal balloon, and in this case it’s gorgeously colored and highly reflective. Even the zig-zag of it’s accordion legs parallel that of the mustard, though technically doing so perpendicularly. But most striking and elegant is how the reflection on the elephant matches the curve of the hip of the supine Baroque statue. It gives the impression we are looking at and through the balloon animal, and highlights the sensuosity of the sculpture. This may be Koons’ most erotic use of a Neoclassical sculpture in his paintings. I noticed the finger of the hand of the sculpture happens to cover the groin of one of the twin girls in the bikinis in the background, suggesting a likely unwelcome surprise. This playful spoof on gender is a refreshing development from Koons’ usual deadpan regurgitation of magazine cut-out ladies that makes one wonder if he’s ever heard of feminism. The second classical sculpture in the background is holding a chalice under the frightened hot dog.
The more I looked at the image the more I discovered. There’s one of those empty pairs of underwear in the upper left, implying a body, except she has a material hand and it’s on Casper’s head. Her hand gains additional significance because it appears to be the object on the top layer of the canvas. There is another pair of yellow underwear on the top right, but uninhabited, and look as though they’d been slung over the canvas. And is it just me or do the large yellow loopy brush strokes evoke the golden arches? There is a lot of reminiscent Americana here, from a remembered adolescent vantage.
The characteristic Koons half-tone background is there (but this time it glows a bit like Lite-Brite), the girls, the anomalous brushwork, and the drawn lines on top, though here they seem much bigger than the canvas, so that we only see the slightly arched angles of them. The green dripping blob in the middle is a new device, not only giving the illusion of bas relief, but also of freshness. It looks as though it could have been applied seconds ago.
I’m not even sure that meaning or interpretations are entirely inappropriate with this work. However, the title, “Arousing Curiosity” leads me to think Casper is a symbol of a boy’s first libidinous feelings, and probably a corresponding bodily reaction. This could be a response to the naked sculpture or girls and their underwear. Once one catches onto the obvious the drips and elephants trunk… start to seem like deliberate and playfully humorous choices. I would hesitate to get bogged down into such a reading, however, as I think the narrative, to the degree there is one, is just a backdrop to evoke awakening, newness, and discovery itself.
I read that this painting was damaged or had some small imperfection, so is back in the studio being reworked. I hope to see this one in person, and that we will see more work in this direction. His imagination, eye, and intelligence are apparent here as I’ve seldom seen in his other work. I almost want to take back all my comments about lawn furniture, bird baths, and shiny baubles tailor made for the 1 percent.