Unearthing the Canon

Unearthing the Canon

UIn 1988, Jeff Koons (b. 1955) unveiled a sculptural series called Banalityin three different galleries. In doing so, he lifted art off its gigantic pedestal and turned it into something much more vernacular that included porcelain pigs, garish kitsch and gold-plated pop stars. He does a similar thing for his new self-titled exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford. As the world’s oldest public museum, it is more familiar with fine art treasures from the likes of China, Greece and India, but Koons fills the third floor with shimmering ballerinas, floating basketballs and balloon rabbits. 

Though this institution seems an unlikely location for the works, Koons disagrees: “I couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today and what it can be.” Perhaps he is right. After all, he has long been concerned with a practice within the wider history of art – how it speaks to and that which has come before, and that which is yet to come. The Balloon Venus is a recreation of Venus of Willendorf– one of the oldest-known works of art – whilst the Antiquity series places antique sculptures within collages of landscapes, felt tip sketches and film stars with inflatable animals. 

These pieces are included in the 17 that make up the relatively small show in Oxford that spans several of Koons’ well-known series, including Equilibrium, Statuaryand Gazing Ball. With 14 works arriving in the UK for the first time and dates ranging from 1985 to 2015, the showcase offers a momentary snapshot into the interests of one of the most important (and expensive) artists of the 21stcentury.

The exhibition opens with a row of four sculptures each from a separate series. One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank’s floating basketball reveals a preoccupation with the everyday, Rabbit’s inflatable appearance exposes his obsession with materials, Ushering in Banality presents mass produced trinkets as art and Gazing Ball (Birdbath) frames the viewer in its shiny reflection. These descriptions are interchangeable across the works, demonstrating Koons’ myriad ways of interrogating similar themes.

Throughout the gallery, the audience is confronted with their own image – in the stainless steel face of Rabbit, in the bulging curves of Balloon Venus, along the ruffles of the Ballerinas’ tutus and in the numerous ocean blue balls. Wherever the viewer moves, their reflection follows, forcing them to consider themselves in relation to the art. In the Gazing Ball series this is taken to another level, as the spherical form places the reflection of the observer in the centre of an iconic Western work, literally adding their image to the painting.

With only a small number of works on display, the show runs the risk of lacking depth. But this is far from the case. In hand-picking integral pieces, Koons highlights recurring concerns, framing them and expanding on them over time. Each work is accompanied by quotes, allowing the artist to unpack his thought process and ensuring this series of curious objects is accessible.

Jeff Koonsruns 7 February to 9 June, Ashmolean, Oxford. For more information, click here. 

Hannah Clugston

Balloon Venus Magenta © Jeff Koons.