Painted in 2003, Monkeys (Ladder) is an overwhelming overload of imagery. It is so packed with sex and sensuality that it appears to burst from the canvas itself, immersing the viewer in Jeff Koons' sublimated world of visual stimulation. Notions of fun from childhood and adulthood appear to have been spliced together, presenting us with swimming pool toys alongside a naked body seemingly lifted from pornography. A fragmented visual language akin to that used in advertising has been dissected and reassembled by Koons in order to create this swirling vision, which collides childhood toys with bare flesh, littered with fragments of fences and walls as well as scraps of female underwear. The overall effect of Monkeys (Ladder) is one of intense ocular intoxication, Koons presenting the viewer with various aspects of sensuousness and play, encouraging release and enjoyment in his viewers, dangling childhood memories and pornographic imagery before us, resulting in a new manifesto presenting sexuality as something to be embraced, something innocent, something vital to our survival and crucially, something fun.
Monkeys (Ladder) forms a part of Koons' Popeye series. This group of works (some are sculptures, some are paintings) takes the form of collages. In the sculptures, inflatable toys have been cast in aluminium; their original paintwork has been replicated, but the toys themselves are placed either upside-down on the end of a chain (in the case of Lobster), hang with kitchen utensils underneath (Dolphin) or support a chair (Monkeys (Chair)). The monkeys that feature in the present painting are clearly based on the same model that featured in Monkeys (Chair), themselves derived from the game Barrel of Monkeys. In fact, in all of the paintings from this series, Koons has used elements of the related sculptures, blended into a new context filled with more explicit adult content. Like a contemporary version of the Paragone debates of the Italian Renaissance, when various art forms were pitted against each other, Koons' hyperreal, meticulously-painted monkeys blur the line between sculpture and painting, between two dimensions and three.
In some Popeye paintings, the inflatable is subsumed by the other imagery; in others, the lobster or monkey or other grinning plastic creature is dominant. In Monkeys (Ladder), the clash of childhood and adult imagery is evident in the fragmented parts of the naked woman which are visible, as well as in the items of lingerie which, with the wearer removed, float spectrally and abstractly within the maelstrom of imagery, scattered like random spurts of lace. In the background are more everyday elements: fences, cement from walls from which the bricks have seemingly been airbrushed out, foliage, and even the same ladder as appears in another sculpture from this series, Caterpillar Ladder. The composition has been carefully and slowly planned, built up layer by layer, using Adobe Photoshop to create an image which has then been painstakingly committed to canvas with the traditional oils and brushes.
In Monkeys (Ladder), the range of brickwork and fences, juxtaposed with the inflatable toys and the naked body, introduces concepts of containment and confinement that seem to be opposed to the freedom and revels implied by the pool toy and the naked body. These themes, central to Koons' crusade against traditional barriers of shame, of taste and of prudishness, have recurred throughout his work, not least in his early Inflatables and then the Equilibrium series. In the latter group in particular, Koons had repeatedly played strange and disconcerting games with the senses of the viewer, creating paradoxical interplays between lightness and weight, or solidity, themes that are further explored in the aluminium mock-inflatables of the Popeye series to which Monkeys (Ladder) makes overt reference. Crucially, by disrupting the properties of the original objects, for instance by casting a rubber dinghy in bronze and suspending basketballs in tanks in liquid, Koons introduced tensions and a dimension of sensuality to otherwise humdrum artefacts, bringing about revelations as to the nature of those originals. And the idea of these objects containing air, the very stuff of life and one of the crucial components of his vacuum cleaners in The New as much as in the Equilibrium and Popeye series, prompted a dialogue around the fragility of life, a dialogue that has been continued in the painted monkeys in this painting. That anxiety about bursting the inflatable, that constant tension in a surface that might be vulnerable to one tiny prick, acts as a metaphor of life and death, while also introducing a strange sensual tension, one that finds an intriguing visual echo in the smooth surface of the naked woman herself. The brittle, sharp metal of the fences in the background deliberately heightens the tension, hinting at the dangers of constraint, encouraging the liberation encapsulated in the flowers in the background, which, without any notion of shame, take part in the timeless cycle of life and reproduction.
In Monkeys (Ladder), Koons has presented the viewer with a strange range of elements from mass imagery such as advertising, from his own work, and from the general lexicon of art itself. For, in the foreground, as though stamped on or added, graffiti-style, is a blue outline moustache. This final touch, this peculiar cherry on the cake, recalls childhood, echoing the Victorian moustaches of old wooden toy soldiers, adding to the sense of play that infuses so much of this picture. At the same time, it clearly references Duchamp's famous defacement of the Mona Lisa in his L.H.O.O.Q.. Duchamp was the great forefather of appropriation in art, beginning with the urinal famously submitted as a Fountain to the Armory show in 1917 and continuing throughout his life and career. Koons himself has had a long history of appropriation, from the vacuum cleaners presented in vitrines in The New to the liquor ads of Luxury and Degradation and the sculptures of Bob Hope, Buster Keaton and Michael Jackson in the Banality works. In the Popeye series, Koons has carefully sought out inflatable toys as his sources that somehow appeal, that are almost a cliché or archetype of how such objects should appear; he has used Photoshop to reconfigure the various found elements, ranging from snapshots to sculptures to popular imagery, creating a twenty-first-century artform that, while superficially bearing some kinship to the paintings of James Rosenquist, is a conceptual descendant of Duchamp.
Another Surrealist's crucial influence can be perceived in the visual games played in Monkeys (Ladder), and in the moustache: Salvador Dalí. Koons himself met Dalí when he was a teenager. He travelled to the St. Regis Hotel, where the Spanish artist was living, and visited an exhibition with him. He was struck by the accessibility, kindness and availability of Dalí, and also by his iconic moustache. In some ways, it is thus Dalí who is referenced here, a strange forefather to Koons in terms of his celebrity artist status and in terms of the revolution he waged against the dominion of received taste. Just as the moustache here is from Dalí, as is the lobster in his various works of that title, so the inflatable monkeys in this painting derive from the game, Barrel of Monkeys (by which the player must pick the hook-tailed monkeys up in a chain, as is visible in Monkeys (Chair)). Yet it also refers tangentially to Chardin's picture of an artist-monkey, with the simian draughtsman perhaps prefiguring Koons' antic revels in the art world. Koons' monkeys are distractingly ludic and ludicrous, belying the underlying seriousness of Koons' intent. They ensure that, to use the phrase that inspired the game, this picture is more fun than a barrel of monkeys.