Big Time

By Schjeldahl, Peter | The New Yorker, March 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Big Time


Schjeldahl, Peter, The New Yorker


The art world is peculiarly suited to dramatize a problem, or at least a syndrome, of the present day: that of abominable wealth, by which I mean the effect of huge fortunes on people who don't have them. The global tide of prosperity that rose in the past decade has, in receding, stranded most boats that aren't ocean liners. This condition pertains with special poignance to a sphere in which the rich (collectors, patrons) and the relatively poor (artists, intellectuals) intermingle. The Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou, whose fabulous holdings of contemporary art are sampled in a controversial show with a remarkably icky title, "Skin Fruit," at the New Museum, where he sits on the board of trustees, presents a handy target for intensifying discontent. So does the show's curator, Jeff Koons, the foundational artist of Joannou's collection and the creator of the boom era's definitive art: perfectionist icons of lower-class taste--stainless-steel balloon animals, life-size pornographic statues, tinted rococo mirrors--that advertise the jolly democratic sentiments of their loaded buyers. (The several embodiments, since 1992, of "Puppy," Koons's forty-foot-tall Scottie dog in living flowers, amount to the "Mona Lisa" of a tinhorn Renaissance.) Objections to the event have centered on the perceived impropriety of a nonprofit museum's boosting the prestige of a board member's collection. I find the fuss touching at a time when big money, besides being just about the only money there is, brands the big-time art it buys--art that behaves, in economic terms, like a form of money itself. Even a lately chastened market pitches the exchange of hard and soft currencies--cash and symbolic capital--at levels beyond the reach of nearly every public institution. The New Museum is facing up to facts, I believe, with its ad-hoc dependence on Joannou. The deeper imbroglio of "Skin Fruit" is its incitement to populist animus: the show arrives on today's downwardly mobile art scene like a bejewelled duchess at a party that--oops--turns out to be a barn dance.

Like its title--a play on "skin flute," slang for penis--"Skin Fruit" seems determined to affront, disarmingly. It strives to be a knockout show of knockouts: big, strong works by artists of independent, raffish temperament, several of whom really are excellent and none of whom are shy. Nearly all of them either render or somehow refer to the figure, in key with the ruggedly humanist sentiments that Joannou has advanced through his Deste Foundation, in Athens, which produces exhibitions and publications on giddy, pop-philosophical themes. (Reprinted in the New Museum's catalogue, an essay by the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who has been the Deste's curator and is now the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, trumpets "the end of nature" and "the end of truth.") Joannou likes to invoke the heritage of classical Greece, though it's not easy to imagine this show enchanting Praxiteles. There are fine works by Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Cindy Sherman, Franz West, and Cady Noland. The prevailing tone, however, is set by items that are longer on provocation than on transcendence: "What If the Phone Rings" (2003), by Urs Fischer, a blond nude in wax inset with burning wicks, which will melt her down during the course of the show; "Pazuzu" (2008), by Roberto Cuoghi, a robustly ugly, nearly twenty-foot-high statue of the unfriendly Assyrian and Babylonian demon; "Saddle" (2000), by Janine Antoni, a stiffened sheet of rawhide formed to the shape of a crawling woman; and "Mother/Child" (1993), by Kiki Smith, life-size wax figures of a woman mouthing one of her breasts and a man likewise attending to his erect penis. Two live-performance works scout the frontier between the sublime and the ridiculous. A sonorous-voiced museum guard, upon encountering a viewer, sings, twice, "This is propaganda, you know, you know," and then speaks the work's label: "Tino Sehgal, 'This is Propaganda,' 2002. …

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