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Blinded by the Hype: A Spotty Affair

From the very beginning, Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, was always going to be the target of much contempt. An embodiment of savvy self-promotion, Damien Hirst has become the world’s richest living artist, and with that, a scapegoat for the pompous market and inflated celebrity status representing all that is wrong with contemporary art today. This latest publicity stunt – a gargantuan worldwide retrospect of spot paintings – is an exhibition founded in pure megalomania: big gallery, big artist, and even bigger personalities. As with the ostentatious two-day auction held at Sotheby’s in 2008 at the height of the economic crisis, Hirst simply doesn’t do modest. And with eleven galleries worldwide, neither does Gagosian. A few weeks ago DailyServing writer Danielle Sommer offered up two challenges: the first to find something new to say about the work, and the second, to pick a side. I love a good challenge.

Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, from Gagosian Gallery website, 28 January 2012. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

 

First things first – I despise the premise of the show. But I do respect the audacity it takes to try and pull something like this off. This was never the show intended to ignite respect and admiration for Hirst – that show is slated to open at Tate Modern this spring. The Complete Spot Paintings instead feels more like a scientific experiment, one of Hirst’s macabre vitrine works spun out into real-life testing grounds, intended to divide the camps into those who follow and those who resist.

For a few moments, let’s try and separate the works from the madness that surrounds them.

Damien Hirst, Levorphanol, 1995, household gloss on canvas. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates.

I am willing to admit that I have always had a soft spot for these paintings. As a wide-eyed student, before learning about Hirst and his tyrannical rule over British contemporary art, I found myself lusting after a candy-coloured work in New York, instantly hooked by its simplicity and destabilising aesthetics. On a canvas of undulating colour with nowhere for the eyes to rest, I found the spots both agitating and enlivening. Dabbling in pharmacology at the time, I was determined to make sense of the work by doing what humans do best – comparing it to that which I already knew well. My inherent drive to find meaning in chaos lost out in the end – in this case, the art didn’t have anything groundbreaking to say about science, nor science about the art. The relationship between the colours, the arrangement and the title was simply one of randomness and chance. It was a matter of order being imposed upon disorder – a fundamental truism of both science and art.

The spot paintings are nothing more than colour, calculations, sheer surface and mass production – Hirst’s dissociative attempt at being more like a scientist, in the way that Andy Warhol wanted to be more like a machine. The paintings stand alone as visually intriguing and brutally honest – they do not purport to have any answers or be something they are not. Hirst is not trying to save contemporary art any more than the pharmaceutical companies are trying to cure cancer – it doesn’t suit either of their ends.

The Compete Spot Paintings, as a public spectacle, is positively cringe-worthy. I believe, however, that the paintings, as paintings, are quite good. Yes, perhaps it is a bit of nostalgia that kicks in, but there is something about sitting in front of the work that I still find invigorating.

I, for one, am quite happy to be seeing spots.

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