Pocketed in the Ashmolean is the world of paradox that is Jeff Koons’ exhibition. The first room introduces his work as we are met by the famed One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank. The quintessentially American basketball provides the familiar, yet this is combined with the strange as we observe the unnerving impossibility of how the ball hangs neither sinking nor floating in the water. The intentional reminiscence of the womb in the piece leaves a sense of invasive intimacy backdropping the stardom associated with the basketball. Such paradoxes breed intrigue that is only enhanced by the next sculpture – Rabbit. The contrast here comes in the innocence of the subject, a child’s toy, against the unsettling nature of its immense scale and the eerie facelessness of steel. Even its stance seems somewhat fierce; a carrot gripped menacingly seamlessly reimagines itself as a weapon. Where Rabbit falls flat is Koons’ insinuation that the contrast lies in femininity and masculinity (with steel representing the masculine and reflection the feminine) an outdated idea of male strength and female vanity. Despite this crumbling beneath a more modern outlook of gender stereotypes, other unsettling contrasts still remain.
In the third piece, Ushering in Banality, we stumble upon a paradox that inhibits Koons’ message. As he blows up a trinket of two children pushing a pig into an enormous and garish sculpture he risks diluting his intentions and heralding ‘low’ art – the art of trinkets and mass production. Koons continues to bring artwork of all natures to the same level as he blows up more trinkets into balloon figures, for example in the form of his Ballerinas. Yet whilst this can be perceived as fault, the blurring distinction between high and low art is what keeps us intrigued, and not only by the subject but by how we approach it and how we regard the oppositions; one of Koons’ main ideas is that without the perceivers there can be no art.
Points in history are connected and revived in the second room, as Koons creates Venus, inspired by an ancient figure of fertility. The material brings an ancient piece to modernity, yet the subject threads us to the past. Here, the discomfort lies in the overt sexuality of the figure and its brash violent pink against the childhood innocence associated with balloons. Our distorted image is reflected back to us as it towers above and swells into space. Again, the effect is not of distinct appreciation or repulsion, but rather intrigue. The same can be said of the stark and almost jarring contrast that arises in his Antiquity pieces as he layers classical sculptures with other elements from modern works, which themselves echo different periods of the past.
The final room of Koons’ exhibition gives less of an impact. Gazing balls are placed arbitrarily on ledges which extend from the pieces and distract from beautiful copies of works from history. Here, my intrigue lay in admiration of the original works, rather than any addition Koons himself had made. Koons wants us to become pensive as we reflect on ourselves in the centre of the pieces, yet to see ourselves gazing back inhibits the power of the original works in which we no longer are permitted to become lost. Reusing work from the past takes away from that alien place Koons’ work seems to occupy. Thus, in the final room the paradoxes that fundamentally generate intrigue in Koons’ work are not present. The exhibition can be seen to falter, but this in itself is a contrast to the rest of the experience thus far and so reveals what we appreciate most in Koons’ work is its strangeness and new approach to art.