Damien Hirst at the Norton
Post #741 • February 28, 2006, 10:53 AM • 22 Comments
Mark Rosenthal, curator at the Norton, begins an essay of Damien Hirst's Bilotti Paintings with this:
For a supposed provocateur of the English art world, Damien Hirst (born 1965) is a remarkably philosophical and canny artist. Witness his thematic concerns: science, religion, and life and death, along with the aesthetic conventions of painting - still life and portraiture. Here is an artist who is wedded to the eternal verities.
Or if you prefer, witness instead how the eternal verities have to get hauled out in support of his work. Nothing less than the great problems of existence will do, because as objects, they fail loudly and obviously.
Carlo Bilotti commissioned the works, four abstracted portraits of the Evangelists, for a now-abandoned project for a meditation pavillion chez Bilotti in Palm Beach. Someone (Jerry Saltz?) remarked that Hirst's primary artistic talent was copying Jeff Koons. As Hirst began painting a few years ago (or had other people painting for him), he had to switch over to copying Damian Loeb. Now, faced with the challenge of rendering something emotive, he's channelling Fred Tomaselli, complete with glued-on pills.
A long career (by contemporary art world standards) of sad-making unoriginality and posturing informs these works. The figures, rendered in sandy, dark silhouettes, hover unconvincingly on color-coded backgrounds. Real butterflies, pens, and razor blades provide filler for the empty areas. Hirst wrote Latin excerpts from the New Testament on the sides of the paintings, which the viewer can read via mirrors that lie in the interior borders of the exquisite frames. When the frames outperform the paintings they surround, you have a problem.
These paintings clarify why Hirst's works in general come off so inadequately. One could make a shopping list of qualities that reside in major works: large scale, important themes, surprising use of materials, and so on. But one cannot reverse-engineer a major work from the shopping list, and that's exactly what Hirst tries to do. The shopping list comes from inspired labor, not the other way around. You can't simply glue profundity to the canvas.
Rosenthal goes on to interpret the work for you in his essay. The butterflies represent the brevity of life, the flat backgrounds refer back to Ellsworth Kelly, the pens refer to the subjects' authorship of the Gospels, the pills and razors evoke martyrdom. Witness, again, the shopping-list approach. He assumes, perhaps along with the artist, that one-by-one decoding of the elements, connecting each to a great theme or important precedent in art history, will reveal the paintings as great works. If only art, interpretation, or the exercise of taste were so simple.