PRINT September 2014

Josiah McElheny

Jeff Koons, Lifeboat, 1985, bronze, 12 × 80 × 60". From the series “Equilibrium,” 1983–93.


JEFF KOONS is like Alfred Hitchcock. Deeply invested in entertaining us with their personal obsessions, both the filmmaker and the artist have gone to great lengths to produce visual gratification. But underneath such diversions lies an unconscious desire for control—and an ocean of fear, the real subject of their art. Koonsian dread often arrives in sculptures depicting objects in uncanny likeness, transforming recognizably cheap, everyday things into metaphors about anxiety and death. Stuff that should disintegrate, or at least deflate, becomes fixed in time, not unlike the faces of movie stars, crystallized on film.

Koons’s earliest works, from the late 1970s, include industrially produced inflatable toys made of vinyl and other perishables, and so some of their components have had to be carefully remade for his current retrospective. But transience becomes permanence in Lifeboat, 1985, where an inflatable dinghy is turned to bronze: A symbol of safety becomes an image of “sunk.” (For more maritime scares, see Koons’s Aqualung, 1985, and of course Hitchcock’s Lifeboat [1944].) The sculpture sits “heavily” on the floor; we sense the weight of the material. While it preserves every small seam of the original, the casting, with its fleshy brown patina, is not realistic so much as sensually faithful.

In Koons’s world of material special effects, perfectionism and distortion are used to produce mirrors that are seemingly more flawless than the world they double. Taken at face value, his titles, such as “Easyfun” and “Celebration,” are a form of misdirection: We don’t notice that what attracts us is sometimes synonymous with what terrifies.

Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.