Damien Hirst is celebrating Valentine’s Day in the form of a pop-up exhibition at Paul Stolper, presenting LOVE, an exhibition of prints and sculptural editions by the artist. The exhibition will run over Valentine’s Day, and focuses exclusively on the theme of love. The exhibition includes ‘LOVE Gold’, a portfolio of love-heart prints, each foil blocked with a single butterfly. But the show only serves to highlight that once upon a time the chainsaw-wielding artist believed in what he was doing. Now, ironically, something has died.
Damien Hirst has been long known for his fascination with vanitas, Francis Bacon, and most things deathly. Hardly a fitting topic for cupids arrow – unless it’s being removed by an Autopter of course. Now Hirst has come up with the thematic element of Valentine’s Day for his exhibition at Paul Stolper, but like any bad relationship, the horror isn’t too far from the surface.
The pills, formaldehyde, flesh, and butterflies – are still in attendance, all as slick as a well-oiled Valentine’s date. The artist’s gold leafed screen prints – bland, and slight – number six, and have a love-heart at their centre with Hirst’s trademark butterfly, beautiful and empty at it’s heart – both literally and metophorically, where the artist attempts to juxtapose vanitas with human desire, frankly it’s all a bit fleeting – but then a Valentine’s Day exhibition was never going to be the artist’s usual sort of massacre.
Instead of the pill cabinets we have Hirst’s giant love-heart sweets – or pill sculptures with ‘♡YU4EVA’, engraved in their surfaces, these multiple sculptures are a far cry from the works of old. But then Hirst always appeared to be working backwards; like an artist who started by creating his final work – and then proceeded do devolve, much to the upset of a generation of art students that were truly inspired by the collective power of the YBAs, and cool Britannia – if not the political version, but the real one that they witnessed for themselves.
Hirst seems to have travelled from Bacon, Goya, and the vanitas paintings of 16th and 17th century Flanders, via the ‘business art’ of Warhol (although Warhol had far greater depth) to the invention of ‘Hirstonomics’. The artist has travelled from dissected cow to cash cow – and every other ‘fish and chip’ Sun inspired trope you can dredge up. If Hirst’s work has a genuine thematic underpinning – it would be ‘value’ – but sadly starting with the pursuit of cultural value and ending with the sheer emptiness of nothing more than financial worth. The ultimate market flood.
As with ‘Love Struck’, a heart pierced by a crossbow bolt suspended in a sweet jar, it’s all just a little bit underwhelming, when compared to the heady days of the YBAs, with sharks, flies, and ‘not-so-quiet homages’ to Bacon. It isn’t a real animal heart, it’s just a lump of cast resin. What happened to the days when genuine suppurating horror leaked from the artist’s vatrines?
Way back in 1992, at Charles Saatchi’s ‘Young British Artists I’ at the old paint factory that was the first Saatchi Gallery, Hirst exhibited the finest work that he ever created; namely a single piece in that exhibition titled ‘A Thousand Years’. A vitrine split in half by a glass wall, with a hole in the partition allowing newly hatched flies from a box reminiscent of a die in one half, to fly into the other where an Insect-O-Cutor hung. The corpses of the flies inside the vitrine accumulated whilst the work was on display. A decaying cow’s head was presented beneath the fly-killer as a meal for the flies. Although it has to be said that Hirst’s trickery began even then, as the head wasn’t real. So much for ‘truth to materials’ – but it was the only weak part of the work.
There is a story, possibly built on over time but not apocryphal, that one day after it was suggested to a particular artist that he may find the show of interest: an elderly Francis Bacon wandered into the old paint factory, and proceeded to walk among the works, dismissing most of them with a look of disdain – until that is, he came across Hirst’s fly piece – and stood open-mouthed.
‘A Thousand Years’ was admired by Bacon, who in a letter to a friend a month before he died, wrote about the experience of seeing the work. Toward the end of that exhibition the rotting flies were heaped inside the vitrine, and the viewer was met with a sickly rotting vapour when entering the gallery – long before they had reached the piece. I know because I was there, an eager young art student who had broken ranks, and unbeknown to my tutors had skipped out of a tour of The National Gallery, to go and see something special, something important. Now that was true Baconian horror. In this day and age ‘health & safety’ would’ve closed Saatchi down.
Who would have thought that the Turner Prize winner, who once re-invigorated the British art scene with his take on the raw language of Bacon with a cheeky irreverence, would end up as a cheap commercial artist knocking out parodies of his own work.
It appears that you can’t escape the death, the Hirstian horror is always just beneath the surface – but Hirst’s vanitas is a banal affair these days, old, more than slightly vacant, and soon to trip off this mortal coil quite satisfied at how much cash it’s made.
Words: Paul Black
Photo: Damien Hirst © Artlyst