Jeff Koons and the denial of the artwork

Damien Hirst’s exhibition of the Jeff Koons pieces in his personal collection has recently opened at his Newport Street Gallery in South London, both artists are at the very pinnacle of their profession – both are written about and discussed relentlessly it seems.

They are natural fits into the notion of the twenty first century artist as we ponder them as signifiers of cultural value or their relationship with the art of the past. The thing that surrounds the work, the auctions, the catalogues, the sycophantic interview has almost become the work itself in the wider context as the physical objects created by each artist’s studio system have become somewhat uninteresting as studio production lines constrain innovative leaps or chance discoveries.

The denial of the artwork as primary focus is nothing new; Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is almost one hundred years old. This however was the artist’s denial of the crafted object; it seems that today it is our denial of the visual aspect of contemporary art that is the rule. One mustn’t just look at – contextual essays, artist’s statements and gallery guides dominate or manipulate our experience. For me this is not an ideal. I prefer my experiences to be direct, engaging and largely unstructured by the intellectual priorities of others.

I have recently attended some cultural events where such an outlook is rewarded. Of the three two were illustrated talks which I came across by chance via twitter, the third an art fair.

The Borough Road Gallery hosted a talk by Dennis Creffield ( a former pupil of David Bomberg and renowned artist in his own right), it was intended as an academic style Q & A but Creffield, an eighty five year old man) jettisoned that to launch himself into an eloquent and impassioned description of his life’s journey through art which he delivered for over an hour talking about a range of slides for over an hour. His work was not once described as a commodity but as something fought for and somehow discovered from within. In direct contrast to both Koons and Hirst there was no aspiration towards the preconceived, everything was handmade at the very edge of the artist’s own ability and there was no impenetrable surface of pristine lustre. The spirit was within the mass. Creffield had no intention of absolutely pinning things down or even in being pinned down himself, his art was an extension of his freedom to be.

I should confess that I am not a regular attendee of cultural talks, although I like to be informed I do not like to be told. Another talk based event I went to recently was presented by Barney Farmer and Mark Leckey on the topic of the Drunken Bakers (of Viz fame). Leckey had made an animated film based upon the drawings of Lee Healey (Farmer’s creative partner) bringing them to life with voice overs and sound effects. The talk was energetically confrontational, satirical but yet at the same time upliftingly humane. The evening was a celebration of the animated protagonists’ mundane existence and their unbreakable bond as brothers in dependency. Alcohol liberated them as much as it ensnared them. This might not sound much like an art event but the existentialist narrative and the drawings ultimately raw but subtly inventive put me in mind of Beckett and Rembrandt.

Art fairs are huge business on a global scale; galleries and buyers hearded together over a long weekend in Europe, Asia the USA.  They are essentially high risk, high reward supermarkets for contemporary art where the only guaranteed winners are the organisers. I wandered through Art 16 a few times as I had helped one of the galleries install my wife’s work. Prior to the opening she was concerned as to how her gritty images of energetic urban activity set beneath jostling architecture would be received. As a whole the fair was largely dedicated to work which was polished to the point of irrelevance in terms of its visual presence, the notion of somehow being out of step, rather too distinct or too individualistic was somehow unsettling.                                                                         

As events unfolded my wife need not have worried; her work gained a good deal of positive attention and numerous sales. The consensus of international marketplace artworks highlighted not only my wife’s art but that of all the artists whose voice was undeniably their own and their idiosyncrasies in plain sight.

These paragraphs are in no way put forward as some sort of thesis or some kind of data indicative of future trends or market values. They are simply anecdotes strung together in order to create (hopefully) some degree of resonance.                                

I may well give Hirst’s collection of Jeff Koons a visit later to see if I can see it unaided..


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