Whitehot Magazine

July 2008, Everything's Here: Jeff Koons and his experience of Chicago

 Ed Paschke, Elcina, 1973, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Jeff Koons, Chicago, and the MCA
Everything’s Here: Jeff Koons and his experience of Chicago
Through October 28, 2008

Recently, the MCA unveiled a mid-career survey on the famous contemporary artist Jeff Koons. The exhibition is chock-a-block full of Koons material dating from 1980-2007. The latest exhibition occupying the first floor galleries now has a second component on the fourth floor entitled Everything’s Here: Jeff Koons and his experience of Chicago, which examines Koons’ relationship to the windy city. In 1974, as a young BFA student in Maryland, Koons discovered the work of Jim Nutt at an MCA organized exhibition for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Jim Nutt’s paintings sparked the curiosity that would eventually lead Jeff Koons to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and partner him with a motley crew known only loosely as the Chicago Imagists. From 1975-76, Koons attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago through a mobility partnership program with the Maryland Institute College of Art in order to work and learn from his newly discovered heroes.

The fourth floor exhibition hinges on this Wizard of Oz conception that an artist should look no further than his/her own backyard to find inspiration for works of art. This advice was given to Jeff by his professor, friend, colleague, and mentor Ed Paschke during his time at the school. Everything’s Here implies that by observing and investigating your surroundings—one can produce creative works that speak to lived experiences and everyday matter. It also calls to attention the same sentiment given by the great poet/art critic Charles Baudelaire, who once espoused this belief in a commencement address to the graduates of the Royal Academy. Artists have always followed these rules consciously or unconsciously, because great art comes from great ideas and great ideas come from new perspectives and ways of experiencing the world. So this belief that everything is here for us, one just has to see it or grab onto it in a distinct way has a long historical lineage in the arts. Rumor has it, Paschke also used to take young Jeff to the sleaziest of strip clubs and the dirtiest of dives in some of the most dangerous parts of the city. The Imagists sought out particular establishments where alternative cultural practices flourished—they occupied the space where counter culture and oddity meet for beers.

H.C. Westermann, W.W.I., courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

The work of Jeff Koons represents a cultural suggestion of sorts, which provides a commentary for our social habits of consumption. The objects, techniques and materials that Jeff selects for the work of art say much about our cultural experiences with commodities and late capitalism. Our never ending quest for the best and the competitive nature that drives our desire for having the latest product/gadget is at the core of a Koons piece. The act of creating fine art objects from low brow materials in the name of Contemporary Art ultimately reshapes the way in which audiences engage serious works (See: Michael Jackson and Bubbles). The deconstructing of the object and what it represents, utilizes the part of our brain that decodes advertisements or reveals sophisticated marketing schemes. With some of the more erotic imagery by Koons one can notice connections to the age old marketing claim that sex sells. Barrowing from universal truths or common social practices, he is able to underscore and market his vision with great success. When viewing the Everything’s Here exhibition one cannot help but to pay close attention to the playful subject matter and the low brow humor; as these are the influences that cause a 53 year old man to create balloon animal sculpture.

The Chicago Imagists worked from a gritty street smart observance model that propelled their imaginations and guided their hands to make surrealist folk art-work. When viewed collectively as in this exhibition the works seem almost cohesive and jointed in a familiar inside joke fashion that conveys the special relationship each artist had with one another. The room opens with the obvious documentation and wall text, which explains the exhibition, then you are greeted by seven Paschke works and some past broadsides of the Hairy Who curated exhibitions by the artists for Hyde Park Art Center and the MCA. Probably the most famous image of Elcina, 1973 by Ed Paschke adorns the first wall and as you pass to the next room works by Christina Ramberg, Karl Wirsum, Roger Brown, Jim Nutt and probably most noteworthy H.C. Westermann sit neatly on display. The Dance of Death, 1975-76 is the most symbolic piece in the room for its use by Koons in the 2003 painting Elvis, which is displayed in the Jeff Koons exhibition in the MCA’s main floor gallery. The background of the painting is the harbor scene from The Dance of Death by H.C.Westermann. This literal reference is more than an homage to the Chicago influence it is a direct image link to the inspirational time spent here as a student. More importantly on a symbolic level, the Westermann piece was created the year that Koons studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

 Jim Nutt, Summer Salt, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Recontextualizing the Imagists work with a Jeff Koons infusion makes apparent the creative connection between artists who play by their own rules utilizing styles that are graphic and personal. The Imagists created art without agendas, loyalties or borders, their personal imaginative pieces resemble a childlike innocence. They were not interested in lofty conceptualism or theoretical frameworks that informed many of their contemporaries. The Chicago Imagists did not put on airs or use phony strategies to mask reality, what you saw was more often what you would get. This is the inherent irony in Jeff Koons’ work and its relationship to those who influenced him, often his art disguises itself to look like one thing while essentially being another. As a viewer you must trust that the artist is telling the truth. Koons’ slick manufactured commodities pull the wool over our eyes and wow us on impact. As the Imagists celebrated sub-culture and exposed their own imaginative worlds, Jeff Koons celebrates capitalism and exposes the ugly side of American popular consumer culture thus blurring the lines between high and low taste. His commentary provides insight into the core of what we will accept or believe. Through Koons the American psyche is revealed

Keith Brown

​W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.


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