Koons' statement, "I want to communicate to as wide a mass as possible. And the way to communicate with the public right now is through TV and advertising. The art world is not effective right now," characterizes the central impetus behind his oeuvre. (Jeff Koons, The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 56). While he wields the language of advertising and the veneer of consumer packaging in all of his works, nowhere is this more overt than in Saint Benedict and the Easyfun series from which it derives.
In December 1999, Koons re-entered the art world with Easyfun, presenting the series in an installation of sculpture and painting at the Sonnabend gallery. The three-dimensional works comprised flat, colored, monochrome mirrors in the abbreviated contours of animal heads. Compared to their Minimalist sparseness, the pictures appeared satiated in their milange of "desirables," sinuous forms and bright colors. Koons' signature palette of confectionary colors and exaggerated curlicues were immediately accessible and appealed the lowest common denominator of popular culture, but were grounded in the eighteenth century Rococo tradition, which inspired and infused previous work such as the Banality series (1988). Originally associated with the frivolities of aristocracy, the Rococo has trickled down through time to inform the knickknacks and useless trifles associated with the bourgeois, with whom consumerism is most strongly identified. Using "high" art that subsequently morphed into "low" art, and re-presenting it as "high" art, Koons cleverly fuses a language for the masses that seamlessly captures their materialistic zeal in both its connotations and formal excess.
Executed in a photo-realist manner, Saint Benedict presents an image of a saint haloed with a deli sandwich. Bright yellow kernels of corn flow across the lower left and rich hot chocolate spills sensually from old-fashioned porcelain teacups that wink cheekily at the viewer. Presented in close-up as if capturing a fetish, exaggerated and sexualized, these images draw and extrapolate from the subliminal rhetoric of advertising and appeal overwhelmingly to the senses. This collage of mundane images is reminiscent of Pop art, superficially resembling the work of James Rosenquist, while the superimposed green swirls appear derivative of op-art. The painting communicates excess not merely through its abundant amalgam of unrelated images, but is also through its buoyant synthesis of styles.
The image of Saint Benedict was inspired by one of Martin Knoller's painted vaults in Balthasar Neuman's Neresheim Abbey, a famous late Baroque German Benedictine monastery. While living in Munich for a period in the 1990s, he visited many churches drawing inspiration from the frescoes that inhabited them. In addition to the Rococo, the Baroque has been a particular source of fascination for Koons because of its seductive excess, originally used by the church as a means of fabricating a spiritual experience, but one that he finds eminently suited to generating media driven consumer lust, the equivalent of religious ecstasy in the present age. He has stated, "When you go to church and you see the gold and the Rococo, it's there, they say, for the glory of God. But I believe that it's there just to soothe the masses for the moment; to make them feel economically secure; to let something else - a spiritual experience, a manipulation - come into their lives." (Jeff Koons, op. cit., p. 110). He makes this analogy explicit by juxtaposing the image of a saint with the iconography of everyday life.
Wrought with historical and popular cultural references, and aesthetic choices ranging from the Baroque, Rococo, Pop and Op art, Saint Benedict presents a complex visual overload that captures contemporary experience. Also reflecting his times, Koons created this work using computer technology to combine icons into desktop collages, which he then transformed into traditional oil paintings rendered with photo-realist precision. As is his practice as a conceptual artist, he employed several assistants for the physical execution of the work, mirroring the studio practices of some of the most famous Old Masters. In both iconography and practice, Koons intermeshes the contemporary with the past, producing works that are metaphorically and literally layered with food for thought.