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Man From Mars Comes in Peace

At 53, contemporary artist Jeff Koons has already been a major art-world figure for about a quarter-century.

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But I don't think analysis and commentary, let alone critique, are really at the heart of Koons's art. There's just seeing, followed by productive misunderstanding, then a sharing of that misunderstanding with us. In a painting titled "Elvis," for instance, Koons simply declares a topless Playboy model to "be" the iconic rocker, and then leaves us to deal with the results. When people profoundly misapprehend the world around them, neurologists call it "agnosia" -- mistaking your wife for a hat being the famous example from Oliver Sacks. Koons turns agnosia into an artistic principle. And that has the effect of letting us see our world, and art, as profoundly other than it usually is. It also helps us understand how fragile and contingent all human understanding may be, as well as how rarely we venture beyond it.

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Koons's trademark is weirdness. But it's not the standard kind you get in Bosch or Dali or wannabe surrealists like Matthew Barney. Koons's objects feel weird by accident, and only to us. It's as though we viewers have lost access to some perfectly sensible system of meaning this art was born to function in, and so have to dream up absurd meanings of our own.

We can't ever really find the key to understanding what is going on, and therefore always feel as though we're probably getting it wrong. That insecurity is one of his art's strongest effects.

Looking at the pieces in this show, as they spread across the MCA's yawning voids, you might as well be looking at the products of a culture that is so remote that the uses and meanings of its objects are almost totally opaque to us.

That may explain the strangely archaeological, even scientific feel to this whole Koons display. Sitting on plain white plinths, and scattered evenly across the open floor, the objects don't seem presented so much to flatter their looks as for maximum visibility and ease of study -- more like airplane motors in a hall at the Air and Space Museum, or like the full range of artifacts unearthed from a dig in ancient Scythia, than like the finest, highest works of art.

Archaeologists are forever misreading and misunderstanding objects they've uncovered: They see great art in lowly functional objects (Greek amphoras, anyone?) or read Stonehenge as an observatory one day and the next as a burial plot. Looking at Koons's art, each of us can feel like a clueless Indiana Jones. Except that it gets weirder, because Koons's art, rather than being evidently foreign, is based on objects and images taken from an everyday world we think of as our own.

Let's go back to Mars for a minute.

Imagine a kind of Martian cargo cult, where ordinary pictures and objects from Earth have reached that planet, and then been used -- or rather, misused -- as sacred art. So on Mars, pornography becomes a vehicle for romantic, almost Platonic sentiment. An ephemeral blow-up lobster seems so precious that it gets immaculately reproduced in everlasting cast aluminum. (Maybe the fact that pool toys need to float gets lost on a planet where all water is frozen.) And then there's the blow-up Mylar bunny that gets cast in mirror-finished stainless steel: As reworked by the Martian Koons, "Bunny" has lost all the good humor of the original toy and now feels like a totem for some sinister rabbit ritual.

The sheer labor and expense that goes into making each of these objects give a sense of the heartfelt importance attached to them. They have an almost votive quality, as though that labor has to serve a higher end than simply making functionless art. The famous "Balloon Dog," Koons's 12-foot-tall replica of a knotted balloon animal, feels as though it's meant to be worshiped, not just contemplated.

With Koons, it's as though we're seeing objects from our own everyday world transported to a distant place where they have been transformed and reused to vastly different ends, then brought back down to us again without a key to their repurposing, leaving us with no choice but to use them as art. No wonder this show can leave a viewer reeling. Almost every object in it works like a Duchampian ready-made, but at many unearthly removes from its original function. It's as though Duchamp's urinal-become-fountain-become-sculpture were uncovered eons from now, and reused yet again to house a sacred relic. Then buried. Then re-rediscovered and presented as superb ancient art. The object's artistic aura might have been preserved, even increased, with time and its reuses, but its meanings would have become so layered and remote that they could never be deciphered.

It's said that art can take you outside yourself. Koons makes art that transports you 100 million miles.

Jeff Koons is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago through Sept. 21, and will not tour. Call 312-280-2660 or visit http://www.mcachicago.org.


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