Economies of Scale | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Economies of Scale 

Jeff Koons bloats up, Artropolis goes on a diet, and two galleries disappear.

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Koons's lobster is red,

His big heart is blue,

He's referencing Manet,

And Winnie the Pooh.

His blow-ups are steel,

The heart weighs a ton,

His dick's in your face—

There's nowhere to run.

Sorry. I just got a big dose of Jeff Koons over at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Koons's bouncy, banal-is-beautiful retrospective—up through September 21—exposes his formula: make it big, make it slick, make it surprising, but make sure there's an art-historical reference for the academics to lean on. Francesco Bonami, who curated the exhibit and finds in it everything from Magritte to Michelangelo (and plenty of Warhol), claims Koons's work is neither kitsch nor critique, but a straightforward "embrace of the consumer world." According to Bonami, you should drop your irony at the door—this show's all about love and sex, and the best way to appreciate it is just to lay back and "let it go into yourself."

Of course, Koons's work isn't actually made by Koons: that nice float toy he picked up at the dollar store was transformed into a Major Work of Art by 90 elves diligently laboring in his New York factory. What Koons does is "the making of the idea," Bonami says. "And there is effort in that."

It must be stressful, because Koons has often made it clear that he's been on a long quest for psychic equilibrium and the carefree masturbation that comes with self-acceptance. Speaking—very calmly—to a packed auditorium on May 31, he retraced his career from his first day in Chicago, when he happened to meet Ed Paschke at a bar, through his vacuum cleaners under glass, to the outsize heart pendant that sold last year for $23 million and made him briefly the world's most expensive living artist.

Koons spent only a year here, studying at the School of the Art Institute from 1975 to '76, but nevertheless lays claim to the legacy of the Chicago Imagists along with the rest of art history. The MCA, where he worked briefly, gave him his first solo show in 1988, and this exhibit (the last to have major input from former director Robert Fitzpatrick) is likely to goose attendance—which, despite the museum's prime location in the heart of tourist territory, was still only 284,114 last year.

The three billboard-sized photos of Koons with his Italian porn-star former wife (and current custody battle adversary), Ilona "La Cicciolina" Staller—showing off her professional qualifications and his lobster—probably won't hurt. Koons, ever the innocent, says the picture titled Ilona's Asshole reminds him of a bird pollinating a flower. He's got a big hairy point there, but the photos have been squeezed into a makeshift backroom anyway, guarded by a pair of signs warning children away.

Fit to Burst

Fattened up by its association with Artropolis, like a goose headed for foie gras, Art Chicago overshot the mark and turned out to be—Whoa! Too big! Exhibitors at the event—the most extensive and prestigious of the five shows included in this year's Artropolis, which drew 50,000 people to the Merchandise Mart on a single weekend—complain that collectors were overwhelmed by the number of booths, programs, and satellite fairs. And Mart organizers, who'd been operating under the impression that more is more, have been listening.

Next year Artropolis will be trimmed to a more appealing size. The bloated and cloutless Artists Project—a show of independents unrepresented by galleries and a major source of aggravation for quality-conscious Art Chicago—has been booted to the first weekend of December, when it'll run concurrently with the Mart's One of a Kind craft show. And Art Chicago itself will be cut back. How much isn't clear; word on the street is that some of this year's 181 dealers—especially those from overseas—went home without sales and won't be returning anyway.

The popular Next show, another source of irritation for Art Chicago exhibitors, will also be put on a diet. Next was supposed to be a limited exhibition opportunity for emerging galleries and was priced accordingly, but dealers I talked with said some established businesses used it as a bargain route to the Art Chicago experience. According to Art Chicago participant Carl Hammer, "Major galleries in New York figured out they could do a [Next] show at a fraction of the price." (A Mart spokesperson calls this is baseless, saying that Next was a "highly curated show.")

Hammer says Next should be cut in half and integrated into Art Chicago, and that the peripheral shows, including the Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair, should probably go. The Mart guys "are terrific in their ambition for the show," Hammer says, and assembled "a sterling group" of dealers this year. But they need to "downsize to control it and address the issue of who buys at this fair. We are not seeing, like we do when we go to Miami or New York, the international collectors."

At press time, a Mart source wasn't sure whether the antique fair will be back as part of Artropolis next year. The fifth of the 2008 events, the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art, is expected to return.

Finally, the Mart announced last week that it's postponing the 2009 fair by a week, to May 1-4. The new date coincides with the opening of the Olafur Eliasson exhibit at the MCA, curated by the museum's new director, Madeleine Grynsztejn—and may be close enough to the as yet unannounced opening of the Art Institute's new Modern wing to allow for VIP peeks. That's a combination that could lure those elusive big-spending collectors the art world is so heavily dependent on. Mart vice president Mark Falanga says moving New York's Mart-owned Armory show up three weeks, to March 4-8, will create more breathing space between events, which should help boost attendance.

Miscellany

The Mart is also the new site for the Chicago Artists Coalition's 11th annual Chicago Art Open, touted as "the largest survey of Chicagoland visual artists." CAC director Olga Stefan says the coalition will pay about $8,500 for expenses on the October 3-19 event, and the Mart's donating space on the eighth floor.

The NavtaSchulz Gallery is going out of business this weekend after two years in its own West Loop building, and taking the Gescheidle Gallery with it. Susan Gescheidle says that when Ryan Schulz and Jodi Navta put the building up for sale she decided to pack it in. After six years and three spaces, she's ready to work as a private dealer, jury a few shows, and get more family time. Her final exhibits, comprising work by Patrick W. Welch, Erling Sjovold, and the team of Grave Dubz and Smoov Brainz, closes June 28. Schulz says his gallery did better when it was located in Princeton, Wisconsin, pop. 1,000. Here, he says, "The space just does not pay for itself. The people from the MCA don't come, the national critics don't come," and the 25-to-40-year-olds are "just not interested."v

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