"Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection"

The New Museum confuses money with taste.

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  • Roberto Cuoghi, Pazuzu

Roberto Cuoghi, Pazuzu

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>1/5

Even by the standards of New Museum exhibitions, “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection” is a sight to behold: a perfect storm of wretchedness brought on by the collision of too much wealth and too little taste. Yet, as selected by Jeff Koons from Joannou’s warehouse of art-market baubles, “Skin Fruit” resists the urge to assign blame for its failings, because it isn’t a show so much as a consensual hallucination—one in which everyone agrees that NewMu board member Joannou is some sort of Medici, instead of an overleveraged resort developer with an eye for flashy, often puerile art.

Delusional? Sure. But the last time I checked, there was still an insanity defense in this country. Harder to fathom is the role of director Lisa Phillips, who’s paid, presumably, to keep her wits about her. In a somewhat unprecedented move, she allowed a trustee the run of the place, to pimp out his holdings with no apparent strings attached. I mean, I get it: Joannou has deep pockets, and the argument that you’d be crazy not to take advantage of his money seems like a rational one. But Phillips might have at least contemplated the possibility that the opposite was true. Considering the hue and cry that greeted the announcement of the exhibition, it’s not like she wasn’t warned. Those bleatings—about the ethics of such an undertaking—were offered up by mere peasants, however, and were duly ignored.

Unsurprisingly, Koons’s choices reflect his own penchant for sculptural excess and aesthetic effrontery, and the pieces here, arranged cheek by jowl, are built to provoke. But it’s a visual mess: The show looks like a yard sale of pushed buttons, or more to the point, given the emphasis on grotesque figuration, like the cantina scene from Star Wars. Take the fourth floor, where Koons shoehorns in the following oversize playthings from Joannou’s rumpus room: a fiberglass replica of the evil deity Pazuzu, familiar to fans of The Exorcist; a blaxploitation sistah covered in bugle beads; a pallid Amazon in an early-’90 woman’s business suit. All that’s missing is Rod Serling stepping out of the shadows to introduce tonight’s episode of Night Gallery. (Look it up on YouTube.)

The fact that some of the names behind these creations—Liza Lou and Charles Ray, to name two—are (or were) well-known artists is beside the point. Here, they are simply the help, shuffling trays of canaps around an Oscar-night celebration for the only real genius that matters anymore: making money. The most egregious example of what I’m talking about is the treatment accorded Kiki Smith’s Untitled (Bowed Woman), from 1995, a certifiable masterpiece in my book. How Smith’s feminist crucifix wound up in Joannou’s possession is beyond me. But the work’s ability to class up the joint with a real visceral presence has been blunted by Koons, who’s unceremoniously shoved the piece into a corner by a stairwell. Well, I guess we know who’s boss.

Doubtless Smith’s career will survive. Unfortunately, the reputations that richly deserve to be undone by this show will also likely emerge unscathed. As long as ambitious artists kiss the ring of power, they will remain protected, which means we’ll probably be stuck with Maurizio Cattelan for a while. If nothing else, his contributions—a morgue of shrouded bodies carved in marble, a barefoot JFK laid in coffin—serve as salutary examples of the values held dear by the global overclass: that life is cheap and justice is for suckers.

Certainly the New Museum has proven that institutional integrity is a joke. Still, I personally wasn’t down with the Comstocks, like art blogger Tyler Green, who raised alarms about the propriety of the show before it opened. In spite of everything, I don’t believe you can censor something like “Skin Fruit” any more than you can censor Jeff Koons, tempting as that may be. He’s been hailed in some quarters as our moment’s greatest artist, and on a certain level, I don’t disagree. Every civilization gets the artists it deserves, and that’s absolutely true of our banana empire. Whether we, as a culture, will escape history’s judgment is another matter. For that, there is no sanity clause.

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