New Museum March 3 – June 6, 2010
Hedonistic virtue aside, what do artist-cum-curator Jeff Koons, billionaire collector Dakis Joannou and the 6th century Assyrian demon god of wind have in common? A lot, apparently, as is demonstrated in the most recent installation of testosterone-tinged excess at the New Museum. Navigating through Skin Fruit is like being a spectator at a rock concert, except here, everyone in the audience is the good looking lead vocalist. Big works (and egos) vie for center stage while smaller pieces are effectively swallowed whole, either by mere proximity to neighboring works or by the artist name stamp alone, itself as distracting an element as any. Curatorially free-wheeling and visually loaded, the exhibition boasts a carnivalesque air of showmanship rather than a refined examination of craftsmanship. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, but a museum show of this magnitude should be able to balance elements of both. This may be the result of poor curatorial choices (it is definitely a result of over-selection), a limited palette from which to choose, or it may simply require a closer look at the players themselves.
First, there’s Joannou, founder of the DESTE Foundation in Greece and stalwart patron of artistic scholarship, whose collection of contemporary art rivals some of the finest in the world. Joannou is also, however, on the museum’s board of trustees, having funded the fourth floor of the museum’s gallery spaces (strategically, the departure point for the exhibition) and is an unapologetic champion of large, aggressive, (and if Skin Fruit is any indicator), primarily male-driven work. Granted, there are a few female heavy-hitters included in the show—Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Janine Antoni, and Cindy Sherman, to name a few—but for the most part, Skin Fruit is a lesson in art market politics, the majority of which tends to focus on bad-boy works by the likes of Matthew Barney, Paul McCarthy, Takashi Murakami, Urs Fischer, Terence Koh, and Dan Colen, all of whom are included.
Then there is Koons himself. Shiny, sleek, outsized, costly: for years these are terms the public has come to associate with the work of the art megastar. Unfortunately for Koons, they may also prove to be the terms the art world comes to associate with his curatorial practice. An avid collector of classicist and 19th century masterpieces himself, Koons is no stranger to the threading of art historical narratives. Joannou’s collection, however, is comprised of an altogether divergent lineage of artworks, the majority of which have only been created over the course of the past 30 years. Aesthetically, this poses a challenge for even the most seasoned of curators and, in addition, most likely presents a more restrained view of contemporary art history than Koons would naturally espouse. Seem complicated? Check! And then there’s also the relationship between Koons and Joannou to consider.
Joannou began to build his collection in the mid-80s with the purchase of Koons’s “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” (1985, notably the only work by Koons in the exhibition) and has since amassed some of the most significant, not to say expensive, works by a large portion of the market’s revered and coveted art darlings. Chris Ofili’s adroitly executed dung paintings, for example, make not one but three appearances throughout Skin Fruit while Charles Ray and Maurizio Cattelan are also repeat offenders. Among the throng of “power” works, however, there are moments of subtlety and genuine artistic excellence. Kara Walker’s racially charged gouaches in sepia tinged hues act as a sarcastically delicate counterbalance to Terence Koh’s white chocolate monoliths; Tino Sehgal’s harmonic narrative “This Is Propaganda,” performed by a female guard, adds an air of the ethereal to an otherwise politically heavy-handed section of the exhibition; artist team Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s “Black Narcissus” (2006) draws us back into the corporeal with their penile and phalange inflected shadow-cast portraiture; and Cindy Sherman’s work from the early 80s shocks with its carnal ferocity.
The ground floor gallery offers some of the exhibition’s most rewarding highlights with works by John Bock, Takashi Murakami, and Christopher Wool, although they too fall prey to curatorial overcrowding. Bock’s installation, “Maltratierte Fregatte” (2006-07) in particular, shines in an explosion of sculptural, cinematic, and vehicular chaos. Two maddeningly high-tempo video projections comprise the media portion of the piece, one featuring Bock’s Berlin based punk-opera performance and adaptation of the Medusa frigate disaster which took place off the coast of Africa in July of 1816 and the other, the destruction of the performance’s original set, a standard school bus, reduced to metallic scrap by the onslaught of two bulldozers. In an ode to John Chamberlain, Bock had the decimated skeleton preserved and placed in the gallery space, its crushed exterior a totemic reference to the eventual dissolution of our mechanical selves.
But in hindsight, David Altmejd’s “The Giant” (2006) might be crowned the king of Skin Fruit. Measuring over eight feet tall, Altmejd’s goliath, cast in quartz-shaped mirrored shards, plaster, and fur speaks directly to the exhibition’s core tenets—the oft-repulsive juxtaposition of man, nature, and narcissism.
According to the exhibition press release, Skin Fruit aims to “evoke the tensions between exterior and interior, between what we see and what we consume.” It posits a corporeal theme garnered by heavy doses of sensuality, sexuality, and multitudinous examinations of the flesh. But is this really what Skin Fruit does? On a whole, I would argue otherwise. What the exhibition does succeed at is generating a buzz about contemporary art, the practice and philosophy of collecting, the art market and the museum as paradox: one part commercial venue, the other part educational institution. As a result, the New Museum has some considerable (re)thinking to do. Everyone learns from their mistakes. Hopefully this beacon of the Bowery is no exception to the rule.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.