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“Skin Fruit” at the New Museum

Apr 29 2010

The Skin Fruit show at the New Museum, while filled with quite well-known (and expensive) art and artists, has been generally panned by art critics. Jeff Koons, the curator of the show, is an artist himself, and had not curated a well-known show before (one of Koons's own works from 1985, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, is on the second floor). He is also a much bigger art celebrity than anyone else in the show, having had solo shows at the Met, MoMA, and even Versailles.

While Koons is still a huge name in the contemporary art world, he - and his contemporaries, many of whom he has picked out for this exhibit - really made his impact on the art scene in the mid- to late-eighties. In essence, Skin Fruit acts as a kind of recent-retrospective of art that was shockingly new and avant-garde roughly 20 years ago, akin to making a mixed tape of your favorite songs from college for your niece. Taken objectively as a 2010 art show, the exhibit fails in many ways - poor layout and organization, a major tilt toward the masculine and abject in art - and lots of shocking 'peaks' without 'valleys,' as one astute critic observed. But seen as a niece's mixtape of the last 30-odd years of the contemporary New York art world, it's a sensation.

Large, obtrusive, offensive, even smelly art rarely gets such a showcase - often a large group show will have one one or two gigantic sculptures, say, or blatantly sexual imagery. This one is made up almost entirely of both: it's the art show you regret having brought your parents to. If you managed to get past Terrence Koh's Chocolate Mountains and Charles Ray's Fall 91 on the top floor, you're greeted with sexual animation on the walkway down to the next floor, which is filled with selections from Matthew Barney's Cremaster series, Mike Kelley's Cave Painting (origins), and a man re-performing the stations of the cross on a life-size crucifix (Pawel Althamer). At this point, two students had made pointed statements: "I don't think art and sexuality combine well," and "are any of these artists crazy?"

Both were valid points: raising sexual issues in the antiseptic environs of a museum is a forceful combination of the private and the public spheres; the mentally infirm often fixate on such ideas, as well as those of self-mutilation, suffering, the grotesque - essentially everything covered by this exhibit. An Artist - especially one of this 80's generation - can be defined as one who illustrates publicly what mist individuals are thinking privately. The same could be said for the insane.

What place does such work have in a private museum? Well, it's no surprise that all of these works come from a private collection - they are they types of works that museums would often shy away from due to their content. But these were also the major themes of the great American artists from the 80's to the 00's: abjection, massive size, questions of identity, exploring sexuality. The Pop artists of the 60's painted iconic American imagery of consumerist society, whereas artists like Mike Kelley actually create the objects of consumerism himself. While Kelley often shows these objects in various states of decomposition or suffering, Koons portrays them as-is: realistic-looking tchotchkes from the tourist gift shop, blown-up to massive size. Suddenly, the aesthetic of modern America becomes harder to ignore.

A similar theme running through Skin Fruit is that of fantasy: While Cindy Sherman's untitled stills evoke a parallel universe, and David Altmejd's The Giant looks like a character from a sci-fi novel, the most fantastic work in the show is Maurizio Cattelan’s 2004 piece Now, a painfully realistic open-coffin view of the late John F. Kennedy, whose coffin was closed for his funeral - but is opened now, in a private viewing room, with all evidence of murder having been erased. Like Cattelan's work, sometimes it's fun to take an imaginary journey to the past in order to better contemplate what things are like in the present - much like Koons's first foray into curating.

Author: bobby