Monday, July 13, 2009

Andre the Giant v. The Incredible Hulk

Last summer I visited the Jeff Koons show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and just last weekend I had a chance to check out the Shepard Fairley show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Thus I once again fulfilled my yearly contemporary quota.

Both artists are pretty far out on the confrontational side of art but in very different ways. Koons covers the unexpected range between metal sculptures painted to look exactly like blow-up dolls (including the Incredible Hulk), graphic photos of him having sex with his Italian adult film star ex-wife and basketballs suspended in liquid. Fairley is most famous for the Obey stickers/graffiti/branding (which is based on an image of Andre the Giant) and numerous portraits of rebels, communists, rock stars and most famously Obama.

Both seem unafraid to challenge the art world, Fairley's raison d'etre for the Obey campaign is to create an empty image upon which people can project. Koons, who is at best a huge mystery, does not provide a lot of context for his painted metal lobsters, exaggerated-size metal objects or semi-photo-realistic paintings. And yet, at his highest points, Koons is the greater artist, his expanded metal version of objects - balloon dogs, hearts, cracked eggs are breathtaking. But much of his work does feel like a joke in search of a punchline, kitch, crap, terrible paintings tacky sculptures. And yes that's the idea, but that doesn't absolve him. He's had the art world by the balls for a while and knows it.

Fairley is clearly the more competent artist purely in the traditional sense, he cranks out images and ideas at an amazing rate, and to judge him purely based on the success of Obey would be unfair. He has a lot of great ideas, but within this great quantity, a lot of his work is ham-fisted. When someone like Banksy completes a graffiti piece you know he's saying something but he's also taking the piss (he's sort of the visual equivalent of the band Mclusky). But Fairley can be so very serious, even if it's not exactly clear what he's being serious about. In the exhibit you see pictures of Joe Strummer and Nixon and Stalin and kids with guns and guns with flowers in them. And schools are good and war is bad, and bombs kill people, yes yes, alright.

At times he feels a bit like the visual Rage Against the Machine, yes we all hate the system sometimes, but must we be so on the nose about it?

Still his technique and style are often fantastic. The frequent use of an under-texture for his prints, be it a textile, piece of newspaper, or a painted image underneath, brings the viewer closer to the canvas and gets them to interact with the art the way cheap slogans often don't. I can read the slogans from across the room, but for good art I want to get up close and see what's really going on.

Perhaps in the end the real question is, who has their finger right on the pulse of popular culture right now:

Fairley ...

... or Koons?

1 comment:

Jstone said...

I don't care for modern art, usually looks like something I put together one day when I was procrastinating with a stack of paper clips and some wood glue.

ps- my confirmation word for this comment is "thongs" screenshot indeed