Towering at an imposing stature of almost seven-feet tall, Jeff Koons’s iconic Bear and Policeman from his 1988 Banality series is seductively gargantuan. Simultaneously innocent and menacing, while retaining a fanciful hilarity concomitant with sadistic transgression, the present work reincarnates our base desires as art and subverts them with great élan. Bear and Policeman has been exhibited in almost every major international survey of Koons’s output over the past quarter-century—most recently in the critically acclaimed large-scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
An anthropomorphized bear wearing a candy-colored striped shirt and a floppy yellow bow tied at the neck escapes traditional symbolic associations of huggable warmth and affectionate earnestness, instead adopting a leering gaze and threatening persona. With his arm wrapped tenderly around the shoulder of the typically uniformed British policeman that peers upward in his grasp, the bear jeers while gripping the Bobby’s whistle—a dramatic reversal of roles that disrupts the inherent power dynamic between the policeman and his irrational, playful counterpart. When interviewed for Art21, Koons explained the glaring sexual undertones permeating the relationship between the bear and the policeman: “There is a sense of sexual humiliation in the over-powering of the Bobby. For me the piece is really saying that art should be something powerful. But at the same time, there’s a morality that comes along with that—the respect of other people, that their rights are equal to yours. So Bear and Policeman was always about art having that power, but being misused and going out of control." The polished brilliance of Koons’s Bear and Policeman resides in its capacity to conflate the highly ordinary with the surreal, tinkering within an exceedingly original, controlled, and complex conceptual domain.
In 1988, Jeff Koons unveiled a series of twenty new sculptures in three concurrent shows at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Galerie Max Hetzler in Cologne, and Donald Young Gallery in Chicago. All three galleries displayed the complete body of twenty works from Banality, each executed in an edition of three such that the simultaneous display could be made possible. Following his already controversial reputation with the series The New, Equilibrium, and Statuary, Banality provoked an entirely new level of unparalleled outrage among critics, collectors, and the public. As Adam Gopnik recalled, Banality “shocked people who claimed not to have been shocked by anything at all since the early sixties, and caused a scandal of a sort that was…almost touching in its re-creation of an earlier and more embattled era in the history of modern art.” (Gopnik cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, 2014, p. 22) Although Banality encouraged hostile reactions and controversy, Koons maintains that his modus operandi was never guided by provocation; rather, acceptance is imperative to Koons. His vocabulary is characterized by profound affirmation, buoying viewers of his work to embrace their past and accept an iconography of optimism irrespective of socially accepted criteria of good taste.
With the Banality series, Koons was seen as ushering in a new aesthetic era: outrageously confrontational, the audacity of Banality embraces a high-culture version of objects from popular culture that represented mass Americana, trading on the ubiquity of souvenirs and stuffed animals, the ornaments that both clog and define the life of the petite bourgeoisie. Sculptural mash-ups that draw iconographic influence from Capodimonte porcelain, airport gift-shop figurines, stuffed animals, magazines, greeting cards, and popular culture, Banality saw Koons enlarge banal objects to a shocking degree, yet his figures retain at their very core a truly profound authenticity. Viewing Bear and Policeman amongst the other Banality sculptures, we are prone to recall these familiar faces of our innocent youth with affection; magnified and mutated, however, these sculptures present a simultaneous familiarity and strangeness that seizes our instinctive pleasure and replaces it with an unsettling anxiety. Arguing for the appreciation of mass-appeal imagery, Koons traffics in the arbitrary distinctions between high and low art, positioning his sculptures in the uncharted territory between the predetermined polar categories. Growing up in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, Koons’s father ran Henry J. Koons Decorators, through which Koons came to understand how the middle-class endow material goods and décor with their deepest and most personal aspirations. Koons invokes a challenging poetics of class, revealing the emotional investments crystallized in objects; these objects and the desires that they provoke inevitably vary by class, presenting a stimulating comment on the nature of objecthood and material culture in America.
Bear and Policeman incites a visceral response from each viewer that stands before its totemic splendor, motivating instantaneous interpretation. Such a compelling tension between both profanity and desire provokes us to evaluate our own reactions to the work, thereby admitting our inherent benchmarks of taste: “People respond to these types of things, but they still distance themselves from it. The Banality work is about the recognition of the response.” (Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture, June – September 2014, pp. 129-30) Banality was meant to not only make us aware of our own decorum, but further impel the removal of the subsequent shame intuitively felt in response to these works. Altering the domain of the readymade as designated by Duchamp, with Banality Koons draws from objects that already functioned as art on the shelves and tabletops of countless middle-class homes, unlike the purely quotidian commodities that Duchamp transported into the realm of high art. The objects that Koons cites possess no innate use value. Urging viewers to overcome their deeply ingrained and oppressive barometers of taste, Koons argued for the fulfillment of our lingering desires of such comforting accoutrements as these commonplace artifacts of our nostalgic memories. Scott Rothkopf called Banality Koons’ “gospel of absolution.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, 2014, p. 22) Through this body of work, Koons desired to provoke a fundamental shift in the relationship between art and life: "Banality was about communicating to the bourgeois class. I wanted to remove their guilt and shame about the banality that motivates them and which they respond to…to embrace their own history so that they can move on and actually create a new upper class instead of having culture debase them" (the artist in Angelika Muthesius, Ed., Jeff Koons, Cologne 1992, p. 28) Such was the enormity of Koons's undertaking that the icons of this series—Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Ushering in Banality, Pink Panther, and Bear and Policeman—have come to epitomize a generation and stand today as the incarnation of an artistic era. Moreover, in breaking many aesthetic and technical boundaries, Bear and Policeman and the Banality series anticipate the sumptuous sculptures in the monumental Celebration series.
Bear and Policeman, and the Banality series as a whole, was at the time Koons' most elaborate and dedicated feat of technical production. Koons commissioned professional craftsmen to execute his porcelain and polychromed wood sculptures, resulting in a staggering mimesis on a surreal scale that aroused a simultaneous awe and familiarity. Bear and Policeman is executed in polychromed wood, an intricate and labor-intensive process whereby wood is carved and later meticulously painted to achieve a naturalistic effigy, originally developed by the sculptors of religious figures in medieval Europe. Koons outsourced the painstaking production of the sculpture to artisans in the mountains of Northern Italy in order to achieve the work’s extraordinary precision. The implausible lengths that Koons pursues to master traditional materials in unprecedented scale and complexity aligns the artist with the sculptural tradition of the Renaissance masters. Every incision, carving, and sumptuously painted wooden detail that adorns Bear and Policeman is archetypal of the astronomical standards of perfection that has defined Koons’s oeuvre from his very first virginal Hoover sculptures through to the flawless stainless steel surface of the Celebration sculpture Moon. The base of Bear and Policeman bears the signature of the craftsman who executed the work while Koons’ signature marks the underside. Beginning with the bronze casts of the Equilibrium series from 1985, Koons had always delighted in the visual paradox and aesthetic delectation of recasting his subject in a new media with the utter perfection of machine-precision finesse. Displaying Koons’s natural predilection for the ornate extravagance of the Baroque, Bear and Policeman has a purposefully distinct eighteenth century Bavarian charm and feel, which may be found in the exaggeration of motif; in the seductive surface and in the bright palette; in the exaggerated expressions of the subjects' faces. Koons’s interest in the eighteenth-century Rococo—the style that exalted the ornate, the seductive, and the over-the-top—is palpable in his response to this period’s popularization of knick-knacks and figurines among the petite bourgeoisie, feeding their own aspirations and desires for status and culture in a way that mimics the contemporary culture of conspicuous consumption.
Witty, intellectual and candid in its presentation, Koons's depiction of the everyday masks a narrative that operates on numerous levels, confronting the viewer with reflections on social aesthetics while never losing sight of the primacy of the object's visual appeal. The result is a sculpture which is more authentic in feel than any ornament that he might have found, a hyperbole of the banal which resuscitates the conceptual genius of Duchamp and rephrases it in a new authentic voice. Rothkopf recently attested to the series’ enduring resonance: “Banalitymade Koons the superstar we know him to be today… Stylishness or the lack thereof is neither an absolute positive value nor a negative one; it changes with the times and without direct correlation to art-historical significance. But Koons’ work remains impressively resistant to that trait. It tests our jaded open-mindedness. Unlike most once-transgressive art, it has retained over decades a concussive power, a capacity to perturb and revolt. Looking at it in the present, one still senses its original sin.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, 2014, p. 23)
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