Mermaid Troll belongs to the Statuary series, which, seen as a whole, encompasses the entire artistic spectrum, from the bust of a beautiful woman that embraces traditions of European sculpture to a gloriously kitsch rabbit. The series, seemingly assembled at random, is transformed by the use of highly polished stainless steel into an imposing body of work. And yet Koons’ choice of material, whilst commanding authority, is as he acknowledges, another glorious fake. The works unravel under layer upon layer of jest and counter-jest, consistently referencing an art historical past whilst simultaneously subverting it.
Koons first used stainless steel in his work for the Luxury and Degradation series that he completed earlier the same year. The richly polished surface of Mermaid Troll is immediately deceptive, imitating silver. Koons deliberately recalls the tradition of using precious metals in sculpture only to subvert it; crucially for him, stainless steel acts as democratising metal. ‘I thought stainless steel would be a wonderful material, I could polish it, and I could create a fake luxury. I never wanted real luxury, instead, I wanted proletarian luxury, something visually intoxicating, disorienting’. (The artist in Jeff Koons, New York, 2012, p.19).
Koons has always sought to challenge and undermine received notions of ‘taste’ by exploiting unusual images and materials. This exploration of taste is integral to the democratisation of art that is a central tenet of Koons’ artistic philosophy. The Statuary series epitomises the democratising powers of art and its great power as a leveller in an unequal society. ‘In Statuary, the social role of art itself, which had been engaged subtly in Koons’ earlier work, became a much more obvious and central theme. Now directly addressing the subject of taste, and in particular the love of the masses for the stuff that art world professionals disdain, Koons confronted the association between high art and the powers and privileges of the upper class…His observations lead us to the thought that high art too may be complicit, as the class taste of a particular group – part of the material world, rather than resistant to it’. (Katy Siegel, ‘Statuary’, in Jeff Koons, 2009, p.222).
In embracing and transforming traditional art historical iconography Mermaid Troll asks us to interrogate our inherited concepts of beauty and desirability. The mermaid troll, a newly invented myth for our modern age, intrigues us; the disjoint between her provocative posture and her cartoonish characteristics is an awkward one, yet Koons succeeds in retaining her siren qualities. We are no longer drawn to her because of her sexual desirability but in the way she challenges us to examine our own cultural preconceptions whilst remaining strangely entrancing.
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