Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection

New York

Skin Fruit, installation view: Works by (l-r): Terence Koh, Roberto Cuoghi, Kara Walker, Charles Ray. All photos: Benoit PailleySkin Fruit, installation view: Works by (l-r): Terence Koh, Roberto Cuoghi, Kara Walker, Charles Ray. All photos: Benoit Pailley. All images courtesy the New Museum, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection
Curated by Jeff Koons
New Museum
Continues to June 6, 2010

When the New Museum announced that its spring 2010 exhibition was going to be selections from the collection of Greek millionaire Dakis Joannou, and was to be curated by artist Jeff Koons, a firestorm of debate ensued. In question was the ethics of such a show: Joannou, a trustee of the New Museum, having his collection shown there with the curating undertaken by an artist whose work is in his collection. The fact that the New Museum was so upfront about everything seemed to irk commentators even more. What got a bit lost in the debate, however, was the quality of the Joannou Collection. Regardless of one’s ethical position, there’s no denying that the Joannou Collection contains some truly amazing works of contemporary art, several of which have attained iconic status. Having some of these rarely seen works on this side of the Atlantic is exciting.

Skin Fruit, installation view: Jeff Koons: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985).Skin Fruit, installation view: Jeff Koons: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985).The title of the exhibition, Skin Fruit, is suggestive on several levels. On the one hand, it plays with the idea of, obviously, skin covering a piece of fruit. Whether we have to peel away or bite through it, the skin hides what we really want to get at. In this sense, the exhibition’s title seems to be a riposte at those who think that contemporary art is all surface and no substance. Others (including Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker) have also suggested that Skin Fruit is a play upon the euphemism for a penis, “skin flute”, which supports the argument that this show is one big ego stroke. Again, regardless of one’s feelings about how the show came together, one has to admire Koons’ choices on a work-by-work basis, even if why certain works have been placed together is occasionally a bit baffling.

Koons has chosen approximately 100 pieces from the more than 1,500 works in the Joannou Collection. Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are immediately greeted by two politically charged works: Maurizio Cattelan’s All (2007), which felt like a ghostly presence under the stark white lighting, and a “living sculpture” by Tino Sehgal, in which one of the museum staff sings: “You know. You know. This is propaganda.” These words float into the first room of the exhibition, the contents of which seem aimed at provoking a visceral response in viewers. A wall-mounted sculpture by Kiki Smith, Intestine (1992), is just that - a coiling, stretched out bronze cast of the human digestive tract. A wax sculpture of a reclining nude blonde woman by Urs Fischer, What if the Phone Rings? (2003), which has been lit and will melt slowly over the course of the exhibition, shares its lumpen form with a Paul McCarthy sculpture and the figures in a pair of dazzling Chris Ofili paintings. (Yes, with glittering lumps of elephant dung attached.) This room is dominated by David Altmejd’s impressive The Giant (2006), a towering figure striking a confident pose even though its body is riddled with holes, impaled by shards of mirror, and is being invaded by (taxidermy) squirrels. Strangely enough, Jeff Koon’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), in its immaculate, self-contained form, felt a bit out of place among these messier works. (This was the only piece of his own work that Koons included in the show, unless one counts his white Puppy vase multiples that were displayed in the window of the museum’s gift shop.)

The ‘greatest hits’ feel of the exhibition continues en route up the stairwell, where one encounters ‘I’m Desperate,’ the most famous of Gillian Wearing’s Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say photographic series (1992-93), and Cady Nolan’s infamous Bluewald (1989), a sculpture which utilizes the image of Lee Harvey Oswald at the moment he was shot by Jack Ruby. (Elsewhere, in a small, quiet room on its own, is Cattelan’s uncanny Now (2004), an effigy of John F. Kennedy, barefoot and lying in a coffin.) Also en route to the second floor are videos by Natalie Djurberg, who uses painstaking stop-motion clay animation to create some truly strange and riveting scenarios.

Skin Fruit, installation view: Maurizio Cattelan: All (2007).Skin Fruit, installation view: Maurizio Cattelan: All (2007).Koon’s curating of the top floor of the exhibition feels the most solid, with all of the works playing with the idea of scale. Liza Lou’s glittering, beaded Super Sister (1999), a just-slightly bigger-than-life-size sculpture of a gun-toting woman straight out of a 70’s blaxploitation flick, seems to square off against Charles Ray’s Fall ‘91 (1992), an oversize, yet life-like, mannequin of a blonde woman in a blue business suit. Several fine large works on paper by Kara Walker line the walls, and a pair of sculptures made from white chocolate by Terence Koh are also featured here. The room is dominated, however, by an enormous sculpture by Roberto Cuoghi, an Italian artist whose work is less known outside of Europe. (In fact, one of the delights of the exhibition is the inclusion of some lesser-known names, allowing for a few ‘discoveries’, such as Los Angeles-based Elliott Hundley, who makes elaborate sculpture out of discarded materials.) Cuoghi’s sculpture is of the demon Pazuzu (2008), which, as the wall text explains, is the demon that invades Linda Blair’s body in the film, The Exorcist (1973). Pazuzu, an Assyrian/Babylonian deity, is considered a malevolent creature that causes droughts and storms. And yet, as such a fearsome deity, Pazuzu was also invoked to keep other evil spirits away, thereby serving a positive function, as well. The inclusion of Cuoghi’s sculpture can’t be coincidental. Perhaps, the collector and curator see themselves reflected in the figure of Pazuzu. Joannou and Koons: harbingers of good or evil for the art world? That’s up to viewers to decide.