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Hi-Suede Multi Flower, 2008, by Takashi Murakami.

Masaki Sato/Masaki Sato

The most delicious irony in Pop Life: Art in a Material World - a National Gallery exhibition slathered in irony, the sarcastic Krazy Glue that held the turbulent 1980s and nineties together - is that the show is much smarter, deeper, and revealing than its glitzy marketing imagery leads the distracted ticket buyer to believe.

Packed with international brand-name artists, Pop Life lures you in with the promise of iconic art made by iconic artists: The Andy Warhol silkscreens of rock stars are here; the Jeff Koons silver bunny and porn awaits; Keith Haring's dancing graffiti takes up a whole room; and, yes, Damien Hirst pickles some livestock.

But then the show sneakily exposes you to a diverse, and occasionally far more interesting, selection of lesser-known artists mining the same glittering veins.

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If Pop Life had consisted of nothing but the greatest hits of the superstars, it would have been about as lively, and necessary, as a lip-synched Britney Spears concert. But the presence of artists who worked contemporaneously with the stars, and often questioned or critiqued their practices, gives Pop Life an unexpected resonance - adds an invaluable layer of self-doubt to the blustery, show-off-prone proceedings.

Let's get the big boys out of the way first (and they are all, with the exception of Tracey Emin, boys). The first and most important lesson Pop Life teaches is simple, but can never be overstated: Everything comes from Warhol.

In a salon decorated with Warhol's early accidents-and-soup-can-era works, his silkscreen portraits and his later forays into multimedia (including a hilarious appearance on Japanese TV hawking TDK electronic products, and some "acting" on The Love Boat), one realizes that the conflation of commerce and art, self-promotion and artist-as-celebrity began with, and was mastered by, the deeply weird and wonderful Warhol.

Nobody was better at exploiting the art world's inevitable collision with the emerging media-centric culture, and his many imitators (past and present) have yet to fully dominate the planet to the degree Warhol still does today. Genius is such a little word.

The artist who came the closest, and continues trying, is Koons. Alongside that overexposed rabbit, Pop Life displays works in which Koons inserted himself as a kind of artist avatar, an enhanced version of himself.

Of these, my favourite is a photograph of Koons posing as a teacher standing in front of a chalkboard and a room full of toddlers. With his signature waxen, creepy-smiley face aglow, Koons teaches the children some helpful art lessons. Among his subjects: "Exploit The Masses" and "Banality As Saviour" (which made me wonder if Koons ever taught at some Canadian art colleges I would be foolish to name). Simultaneously smarmy and deflating, his persona, that of a confidence man who may be fooling himself more than anyone else, is neatly summed up in this image.

There is also a room containing Koons's Kama Sutra-inspired collaborations with his ex-wife, Italian pornstar/politician Cicciolina. It is a room closed by the gallery to unaccompanied minors. Shocking as these works must have been in 1989, I'm convinced the average 11-year-old has access today to coarser imagery on the Internet. Keeping the kiddies away from these portraits of intercourse seems silly. Wouldn't it be better to use the works as conversation starters about the (alleged) difference between art and pornography?

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The biggest, loudest brat of the lot, Hirst, is well represented in Pop Life. There is the aforementioned preserved animal (a fake unicorn, which is sort of sweet); a couple of his boring dot paintings; and his most seductive works (because they are as sparkly as drag queens, and twice as fake), the Memories Of/Moments With You sculptures.

These consist of two gold-plated steel cabinets lined with narrow glass shelves bearing hundreds of what are labelled "manufactured" diamonds. Wondrously excessive, the cabinets give you Hirst in a box: They act as a tidy summation of his practice, i.e. overwhelming the viewer's senses with consumer-culture clichés of success. False and beautiful, these treasure troves are presented, perversely, like academic museum displays. Hirst may have lost his power to alarm, but his higher goal - to blend the clinical and the sensual, to sterilize glamour - is as intriguing as ever.

Setting the art supermen aside (they get enough oxygen, and print), Pop Life presents a feminist dynamic I was hardly expecting, but was profoundly glad to find.

While the power brokers popularized, and became fantastically rich off, the commodification of the person, and played with the (again, alleged) boundaries between porn and art, a group of female artists took an active, investigative approach. They wholly partook in these fluid exchanges, and did more than simply repackage them for the attention-deficit-riddled art market.

Way back in the mid-seventies, British conceptual artist Cosey Fanni Tutti invaded the mainstream porn market by working as a model for dirty magazines. The publishers of the mags had no idea she intended to subsequently reposition the photos of herself as artworks that actively critiqued pornography by holding a mirror up to its titillation strategies. A sample of her work as a model is presented at the National Gallery as art, and makes you consider how context informs what we might otherwise perceive as trash.

This is complex and vital art that operates on many levels - as straightforward erotica, as feminist reclamation, as performance, as private arousal turned into spectacle - and it must have had a profound influence on Koons and the many bad-boy artists of his era (not to mention Emin, who turns her sexual adventures into granny craft projects, including a dirty diary rendered as a quilt). The difference between Tutti's work and Koons's exploits is akin to that between direct action and mere political manoeuvring.

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Similarly, American performance/video artist Andrea Fraser took the "artist as prostitute" slogan (another Warhol trope) one step further, selling her favours to the highest bidder and videotaping the results. A fascinating precursor to the now-common practice of webcam-captured amateur erotica (her project was created in 2003, close enough to the amateur-porn boom to be prophetic), Fraser's work, like Tutti's, cuts through all the obscuring layers of presentation common to pop art.

Gone is all that tightrope-walking between art and sensation, meaning and surface. She presents, instead, surveillance-camera-style action, unlacquered and blunt (well, partly - Fraser is ultimately a performer), as a nervy counterpoint to pop art's commercialized posturing.

Elaine Sturtevant's resistance to the pop-art boy's club is equally fraught with questions, particularly questions around authenticity and value. In the late seventies and mid-eighties, Sturtevant made exact, or semi-exact, copies of works by Warhol and Haring, and sold them as her own.

These copies, or interpretations, serve a twofold purpose. First, they make the art done by the stars look easy to replicate, which is admittedly a cheap jab on her part. More importantly, they disassemble the art world's fascination with authentication and originality. It's always been a fascination particularly misplaced (but nevertheless millionaire-making) in a pop aesthetic that sought, or claimed to seek, a kind of democratizing of the arts, a world where fake is fabulous.

Pop Life is driven by such point-counterpoint moments, engagements and inquiries with and about the essence of pop art. Fittingly, then, the show ends with three rather solemn, and easily passed-by, 2008 works by the collective known as Reena Spaulings.

Over the course of a year, Reena Spaulings collected soiled tablecloths from high-end art-opening receptions, and mounted the fabrics, unwashed, on circular stretchers. Marred by spilled drinks and dropped food, the tablecloths ask us to remember that, after the dazzling parade passes by, after the pop pops, somebody - usually somebody wholly outside of the art world and its class-and-cash nexus - has to clean up the mess.

Reena Spaulings's message is not morbid. It's just a quiet dose of reality in a show that otherwise revels and rolls in glossy simulacra. The work is also the best example of how Pop Life as a whole is more considered than many of its prettiest baubles.

Pop Life: Art in a Material World continues at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until Sept. 19.

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