"Hulk Elvis" catalogs an exhibition of that name by American artist Jeff Koons that ran at the Gagosian Gallery in London in the summer of 2007. It's quite a production -- this is a lavish, handsome book with shiny silver endpapers and pages as thick as baseball cards. The paintings reproduced here are collages made up of images that were scanned and photoshopped into distinct layers, then artfully arranged for your viewing pleasure. The primary motifs include an inflatable monkey, a blow-up Incredible Hulk, the Liberty Bell and a crude line drawing of a vagina, which are repeated in different combinations and colors in these 24 paintings. And, yes, they are paintings. As I understand it, Koons and his studio printed the composite computer files on canvases using oil paint.
Along with the reproductions of the paintings, which are themselves reproductions of reproductions, mind you -- Ceci n'est pas un Hulk -- the book includes a brief interview with Koons and a groveling essay about his work by Scott Rothkopf, an editor at Artforum. One cannot expect the introductory text of an expensive coffee table book to be terribly critical of the artist in question, but this essay treats Koons in the same way Koons did his then-wife, the porn princess Ilona Staller (a.k.a. La Cicciolina), in his famous "Made in Heaven" series.
While Rothkopf rightly considers Koons' "Play-Doh" paintings useful to our understanding of the artist's oeuvre, his critical inspiration elsewhere is over the top.
"Koons's method inaugurated a new chapter in the tale of the often antagonistic relationship between color and drawing," Rothkopf writes, "which dates back to the debates between the partisans of Michelangelo and Titian or of Ingres and Delacroix, who argued for the primacy of one artistic trait over the other."
While I appreciate the effort to place Koons' work in such an exalted historical context, I am unable to believe the hyperbole. Maybe that's because Koons' "mode of picturing may initially be hard for the untrained eye to see."
Even to my ignorant, untrained eye, the choice of subjects -- or objects-as-subjects -- in the "Hulk Elvis" series is compelling. In the interview included in the book, Koons explains: "The Hulk is like a guardian god. For these Hulks to have the ability to be a guardian, they have to be able to protect, and to protect means to maintain and shelter and preserve."
Koons says that he decided to paint inflatable Hulks in particular because, "I feel internally more dense -- I feel dense on the inside, and outside the body is very airy. But in an inflatable it's the opposite, where you get a sense that internally there's no density and that what's being experienced on the external surface of the inflatable is denser."
The nostalgic, iconic weight calls to mind Warhol's soup cans. Just as those Campbell's cans evoked suburban conformity, mechanical reproduction, maybe even the bomb shelter food stockpiles of the 1950s, Koons' inflatable toys evoke the digital reproduction and plastic disposability of our present consumer culture. I credit the enormous popularity and commercial success of his work in large part to the perpetual adolescence of the contemporary American male. Nostalgia is a huge industry in part because so many of us refuse to grow up. Adults nowadays own as many toys as their kids.
Koons' genius, then, as displayed in "Hulk Elvis," derives in large part from his understanding of exactly who we are today -- of our needs, desires and excesses -- and his willingness to cash in on that understanding.
Good for him.
Ervin is the author of the forthcoming collection of three novellas, "Extraordinary Renditions."