LONDON (Reuters) - Artist Jeff Koons has presented a series of Popeye paintings in London, saying the cartoon hero born of the 1929 Depression was a symbol of self confidence, before adding enigmatically: "May be art is the spinach."
The 54-year-old American, one of the world's most successful artists dubbed the "king of kitsch" for his shiny, balloon-like creations and references to pop culture, is marking the first major survey of his work to be held in a public English gallery.
"Jeff Koons: Popeye Series" opens at the Serpentine Gallery in London on July 2 and runs until September 13.
As well as the Popeye canvases, it features a series of Koons's trademark casts of inflatable toys in the shape of lobsters, walruses, turtles and monkeys.
Some of them appear to be pushing through wire fencing or garden chairs in what some critics see as a symbol of people determined to get through the recession.
"I always see a little bit of my father in Popeye," Koons told reporters at a preview of the show.
"But something that's not so personal is that it's 'I yam what I yam', and it's this self-acceptance.
"And for art to function ... you first have to trust in yourself and when you trust in yourself you can follow your interests and follow them on a profound level."
Speaking of his fascination for inflatable animals, which he reproduces in minute detail using aluminum and paint, he added:
"In our own life we're inflatables. We take a breath as a symbol of optimism, we exhale and it's a symbol of death. We're in a permanent state of being optimistic."
Koons said he wanted his art to make the viewer feel good about life.
"Art's this vehicle that connects you with human history and that's what these works are about. I want the viewer to come into contact with the work and to feel that everything about their life to that moment is perfect, absolutely perfect."
Another recurring theme in the show is the inflatable lobster, a reference to surrealist Salvador Dali's use of the animal in his art as well as his elongated mustache.
In the 2003 canvas "Elvis," the creature is painted over two images of a semi-naked woman staring voluptuously at the viewer, a sexual reference that also runs through Koons' art.
Like Briton Damien Hirst, Koons embraces the role of celebrity artist, drawing criticism from some commentators who dismiss his work as tacky, superficial and cynical.
Others, like Jonathan Jones of Britain's Guardian newspaper, disagree. Jones called Koons a "brave and original" artist whose work "declares the weirdness of its materials, its themes, its maker and its public."
Whatever the critics say, collectors like Koons.
His polished pink sculpture "Balloon Flower (Magenta)," for example, fetched $25.8 million, including commission, at a London auction a year ago.
Editing by Paul Casciato