Friday, December 16, 2011

Art Cars are strange, and if you like Jeff Koons, stay away from this post.

To those who regularly read this blog, all 10 of you: I'm going to start posting some writing here. It's to sharpen my art criticism skillz. I'll be writing on everything from art trends to gallery shows in Philly to why the gum on my shoe kind of looks like Mona Lisa. So stay tuned.

I'm not sure if art cars are ever really taken seriously by the art community these days. Do they mean anything, or are they just playthings for rich people? Of course all art is to some extent, but with the brand BMW being shoved in my face, I seem to feel that art cars are a particular brand of art that takes inaccessibility to a whole new level.

That being said, some people do take art cars quite seriously. Collectors do, and apparently the V & A does.

Artists do. It seems as if Frank Stella certainly cared about his car, and examined the artists that made cars before him. And there are certainly some cars that I consider more successful than others. Based on my own specific judgements, I really want these art cars to do 2 things:

1) Exhibit the specific style of the artist. Be definitively by them.
2) Make me question what a car is and all of my presumptions about them.

One car that I love is this 2007 piece by Olafur Eliasson. It does both of those things.

The second one is probably the harder and loftier expectation of the two. But up on hearing the phrase "art car" I can't help but think that's what it should do! Art makes you question what you knew before.

With that intro, I have to say that the newest addition to the BMW art car line, by my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE ARTIST (so much sarcasm there) Jeffrey Koons, fails MISERABLY at that second expectation.

Here, have a looksie.

First off: you look like a complete ass in that picture, Jeff Koons, but I wouldn't expect any less of you. In fact, I couldn't expect any less if I tried. You painted what amounts to streaks of light on a car. It looks like a long exposure of lights. Long exposures, the epitome of American traffic photography, and certainly the first thing that came to my mind and your's when thinking about cars...I'm honestly sad you didn't think harder about this one, Jeff. I'm left unimpressed and unsatisfied.

It's unimaginative. It's as if BMW asked someone in middle-school to paint a car. However, it succeeds wildly on my first criteria set. It is very Koons. Koons is the epitome of kitsch, and I'll give the automobile that.

But it even pales in comparison to the pieces that Koons is best known for - his shiny phallic monstrous balloon animals. Like this one.

Reasons why the balloon animals are successful:

1) They are banal, which means they are postmodern. Koons' appreciation of banal subject matter is something that he derived from Claes Oldenburg and, of course, Duchamp. It's an attempt to give the banal new meaning, by...

2) Transforming the banal. It really does play with what you expect from a balloon animal. Quick: think of three adjectives that describe a balloon animal. Not this one, but a real one. It's flexible, bendable, soft, small. This is NONE of these things. And it takes the slight sheen of a balloon to an unprecedented level. On the expectation that art should challenge my expectations, I suppose it does succeed.

However, the reasons why I dislike the balloon animals so much go against exactly what Koons is trying to do. Mostly, my distate comes from the fact that it's so very sellable. Is Jeff Koons making art, or is he making a profit? Aren't they the same thing? In my ideal world I would argue "no," but Koons throws this in my face. The last list of this post, I promise:

Reasons why Koons' work is sellable:

1) Safe subject matter. Admittedly, this does mean banal subject matter. But it is still not a urinal. A urinal is banal, but still edgy enough. A balloon animal? Who doesn't like balloon animals?

2) It's nostalgic - a word that I am NOT looking for in contemporary art. It reminds people of their childhood, a happy time when they had a balloon animal - excuse me while I throw up. I don't need you to remind me of this, Jeff Koons. This is way too obvious of a reference. Again, he'll have to dig deeper than that to impress me.

3) It's shiny. People like seeing their reflection! It's true! And yet there is some mirror art that is successful - Pistoletto is a favorite of mine. But Pistoletto challenges what you expect from a mirror and plays with you as a viewer when you see his work, while making you more aware of what surrounds you, rather than giving you a moment to focus on yourself (aka the traditional purpose of mirrors). Jeff Koons simply reflects you in a...

4) Phallic object (you knew that word was in this post). Sex sells, it's true, and NO ONE knows better than Jeff Koons. I once saw Jeff Koons give a talk, and as a sort of nervous tick, at the end of every slide of his work he would add "and that's the phallus there," or "and I suppose it is a bit phallic." Literally, every work of his has a penis in it. And just in case you didn't know he painted a giant photorealistic penis, he is very, very happy to tell you he did.

In conclusion, my theory on why Jeff Koons' most popular works are such and sell well is because they're sexual reflections of the buyer disguised as something safe and nostalgic. While the dichotomy of the two is interesting, I feel that most don't see very much beyond the surface of "shiny object that I like and makes me feel powerful but I can't quite figure out why." I feel sad for anyone who can't see through that thin veil. I'm sure there are buyers who do realize it, but honestly, nowadays with Koons' popularity, no contemporary art collection is complete without a balloon animal. Hell, I'm devoting my first art criticism blog post to Koons. No matter how much I dislike the man, he is doing something right.

But this is where the art car goes all wrong. Yes, it's safe and kitschy, but it stops there. I suppose it is shiny, but it's nothing compared to the high-gloss surfaces of the balloon animals. It doesn't play with my perception of a car - rather, it reinforces it and throws it in my face, but not in a way that makes me step back and go "huh."

It sort of reminds me of the most recent Claes Oldenburg sculpture here in Philly. I used to live near it and I had to walk by it all the time. It was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Supposedly, Oldenburg came up with the idea himself, though I feel like his factory - much like Koons' factory - probably did most of it for him. To his credit, though, he was there the day the sculpture was erected. But really, Oldenburg? I know that you are known for banality, but you put a giant paintbrush at an art school. It's not thought-provoking. It's very pop, but in the worst way. It doesn't play with my perception at all.

I suppose in the end my biggest problem with Koons' art car, and Oldenburg's sculpture, is that neither of them are original ideas. And they're not banal enough to make me say "okay okay I get it postmodernism yadda yadda." They're just...there. And I cringe at what little brain power successful artists have to exude, because they have constant adoration and hardly anyone questions them any more. At least, no one in the immediate group around them. There are of course dissident critics like me - and Koons is certainly one of the most hotly criticized artists - but it's because certain works of his push the envelope enough for a backlash. The problem is that his art car doesn't do that. It just makes me bored enough to leave the room.
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  1. I think art cars are great! I wish they had more in my area. It doesn't seem like there are a lot of artists here. We sure do have an endless supply of stainless steel pots and pans though! I wonder if someone will ever try to make art out of them.

    1. I'm sure it's been done. Everything has! All we have to do is google...