Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Damien Hirst Hits the Spot

LSD, by Damien Hirst; Insert Your Own Joke Here

One can only imagine that Damien Hirst had a very accommodating mother. Think of them together in little Damien’s nursery so many years ago…

Damien (age three): Look, Mommy, I’ve painted a picture!

Hands her a page littered with multi-colored dots.

Mother Hirst: That’s nice, dear.

Damien: Do you know what it is?

Mother Hirst (turning it this way and that): Ahh … surprise me.

Damien: It’s a painting of Daddy!

Mother Hirst: Someday, lad, you’re going to be a great painter. Or something.

Damien: No, no, Mommy. I’m going to be a rich painter!

Mother Hirst: Come give Mother a kiss and be sure to behave.

Damien Hirst (born 1965) is Britain’s wealthiest living artist, valued at £215m by the Sunday Times. (That’s more than $300 million American, folks.) He stands, with Professor of Drawing Tracey Emin of England’s Royal Academy, as a horrific example of the cynicism and hucksterism that has penetrated the contemporary art scene.

Hirst was born in Bristol and grew up in Leeds. His father, a car mechanic, left the family when Hirst was 12 and he was raised, for the most part, by his mother, Mary Brennan. Though she was a strict disciplinarian (and, if one reads between the lines, boarder-line abusive), Mrs. Hirst encouraged his artistic ambitions. Hirst would later attend the Leeds College of Art.

Hirst hit the jackpot when crackpot Charles Saatchi (of the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi) promised to fund whatever work Hirst wanted to make. With this bankroll, Hirst “created” The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which debuted at the misnamed Young British Artists exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Physical Impossibility was a dead shark pickled in a tank of formaldehyde -- it sold for £50,000 and Hirst was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Hirst went back to the slaughterhouse with Away From the Flock, which was a sheep in a tank of formaldehyde. Sadly … Hirst gets the money, but not the joke. In 1993 artist Mark Bridger walked into the gallery where Away From the Flock was on display and poured black ink into the tank, retitling the work Black Sheep. One would think the world owed Bridger a vote of profound thanks (at least we could no longer see the sheep), but Hirst did not enjoy being topped by a wit greater than his, and pressed charges.

Hirst is currently in the news again thanks to The Complete Spot Paintings, 1986-2011, which are featured in Larry Gargosian’s 11 galleries dotted around New York, London, Paris, Geneva, Rome, Athens, Hong Kong, and Beverly Hills. And if you love spots, then these 331 paintings are for you. Teenagers with acne – beware!

Now, the most amazing thing about these paintings – aside from how utterly puerile and ridiculous they are – is that Hirst himself did not paint most of them. He has had a team of assistants spotting canvasses for him for decades – for Hirst, like a deadbeat dad, the creative act often begins and ends with conception. Many of his spot paintings were actually done by Rachel Howard – and Hirst himself has said the only difference between spots painted by himself and spots painted by someone else was merely a question of money...

Fortunately, we here at The Jade Sphinx are not the sole voices of sanity wailing in the wilderness. In a recent New Yorker review Peter Schjeldahl wrote that, “…to like them would entail identifying with the artist’s cynicism, as heards of collectors, worldwide, evidently do. Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort.”

Substitute “immorality” for “immortality,” and I could not agree more.

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