Jeff Koons At The Ashmolean

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford UK (through 9 Jun 2019)
Reviewed by Christopher P Jones

To say that a work of art holds up a mirror to the world is to recognise an attempt by the artist at portraying the truth. “See what the world really looks like” is the message. Art like this — that seeks to show us the reality of things — does so by parodying, exposing, lampooning and taunting. It invites you to peer into the fracture it has opened up, and when you do so, it’s like standing beside the artist and peering in together. With Jeff Koons it’s always a bit trickier. You sense that he too is holding up a mirror, but what kind of fracture is he asking you to peer into? One that, when the light reaches the depths, you see Koons’ own smile gleaming back at you?

In this retrospective at the Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford, the wild and wonderful works on display demonstrate above all Koons’ refusal to give away his allegiances. To trust him maybe to open yourself up to some ridicule that sits latently within the work, and for that reason you feel like Koons is holding all of the cards and yet still expects you to play the game.

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Gazing Ball (Titian Diana and Actaeon) 2014–15
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Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. 1556–1559.

Curated by Koons himself, together with guest curator Norman Rosenthal, the Ashmolean exhibition consists of three rooms: the first quick-steps through four decades, passing from his early and memorable One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1986) where a lone basketball floats in a water-filled tank without either sinking or bobbing to the surface, through to a prototype of his Gazing Ball series, Gazing Ball (Birdbath) made in 2013. A short video on the wall has Koons explaining why he is so excited about exhibiting in the world’s oldest museum.

In the following two rooms, Koons does all he can to furnish his oeuvre with references to past works of art. There are two monumental ballerina pieces, making reference to Degas, and a whole series of Antiquity paintings, large pop-art collages of Greek sculpture overlaid with graffiti-like scrawl. And then there’s Balloon Venus (Magenta), a behemothic pink-balloon travesty of the tiny Ice Age ‘Venus of Wilendorf’, one of the most ancient works of art in existence.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a sense of spectacle in these works — I heard at least two people around me gasp on first sight of the inflated ballerinas — the repeating impression is of plunder: like a magpie wafting around the halls of large museums (and their gift shops) when all the visitors have gone, plucking for its own delight objects that it takes and lines its nest with. The Balloon Venus (Magenta) in particular, towering above you like a benign Cyclopes, has the air of glorious and costly folly. . .

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Antiquity 2 (Dots)*Antiquity 2 (Dots)* 2009–12

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