Koons's Hulk Elvis series has spanned over ten years now and consists of monumental sculptures and paintings with the familiar Hulk Elvis inflatables and the abstract landscape paintings, which first appeared in 2007, recognized for the incorporation of "swish" gestures.The Twombly-esque linear gestures that we see in the present work are inspired both by Koons's son's drawings as well as sketches the artist himself made. This delirium of free-form linear elements, much like the drawings of Cy Twombly, densely layered on the vast stretch of canvas, also brings to mind Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. However in Koons’s work, the seemingly unsystematic and spontaneous gestures are not the result of impulse or immediacy deployed across the canvas surface. Instead, Koons challenges and subverts the implications of physical gestural energy, as they have in fact been edited, enlarged, and layered in Photoshop, before being meticulously painted in exact replication on the canvas.
This process of calculated manipulation clearly relates to two protagonists of the Pop Art movement: James Rosenquist and Roy Lichenstein. Similar to Koons’s intent with his "fake" gestures, Lichenstein’s Brushstroke paintings of the 1960s contained a similar aim of depicting the gestural expressions of an artist’s brushstroke itself. Furthermore, Koons shares Rosenquist’s drive of creating a sense of simultaneous dislocation and connection through the collaging and layering of images and marks.
Primal Swish is dominated by a muted, earthy-brown, making it impossible to tell the emotive character of the gestures, whether angry or playful. Beneath the surface of erratic gestures, we see more and more layers of color and movement, yet nothing identifiable. However, Koons offers our eye a place to rest upon: the floating white rose in the foreground arresting our attention away from the unintelligible, primordial marks that dominate the remainder of the work. For centuries, the flower has carried a wealth of symbolic meanings, and this particular bloom – posed and centered much like a traditional portrait painting – offers a number of challenging implications. Koons's earlier Hulk Elvis abstract landscape paintings incorporated a line drawing making reference to Courbet's Origin of the World. Here, Koons's "origin-motif" is replaced by the rose, an art historical trope that often symbolizes fertility in full bloom. In this switch, Koons perplexes our perception of the energy created by the “swishes” with the serenity of a flower, as well as alluding to aspects of classical mythology. We can see a direct reference to the story of the vain youth, Narcissus, who after falling in love with his own refection, was transformed into a flower.
This being said, in Primal Swish, Koons is offering the viewer so much more to consider. As the proverb warns us “Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t,” the flower is renowned as a representation of lust and the realm of the erotic. This is, of course, not the first time we have seen a flower in Koons’ work – in fact, it is one of his most common and potent motifs. Koons uses flowers as both subject and medium in the most suggestive sexual manner, such as in Wall Relief with Bird of 1991, Tulips of 1994-2005, or the monumental Split Rocker of 2000, itself constructed from a multitude of blossoms. While in Primal Swish Koons avoids the colorful plasticity of the majority of his other flowers, we are still offered a peek at the pollen inside. With this oscillation between the two-dimensionality of the background and the three-dimensionality of the petals, we are urged to lean in and take a closer look. However unlike the overtly erotic, magnified close-ups of flowers that Georgia O’Keeffe painted in the first half of the century, Koons distances this flower from us – teasing and tempting, yet ultimately chaste.
Primal Swish is an extraordinarily unique work for Koons. The viewer is presented with a number of clear contrasts: between the energy of the gestures and the serenity of the rose, the precision in which his apparently expressionistic brushstrokes were executed, and between the Twombly-esque vigor of densely layered gestures and the three-dimensional allure of the flower. In presenting the viewer with such an activated painting on a grand scale, Koons intentionally leaves each individual viewer to derive their own interpretation.
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