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White Gray Black

Damien Hirst (British, born 1965)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

English sculptor, installation artist, painter and printmaker. He was a leading figure in the group of ‘Young British Artists’ who emerged, predominantly in London, in the 1990s. He studied at Goldsmiths’ College, London (1986–9), and in 1988 curated the exhibition Freeze, which provided a new platform to show his own work and that of many of his Goldsmiths’ contemporaries, some of whom have since become internationally renowned. His works are explicitly concerned with the fundamental dilemmas of human existence; his constant themes have included the fragility of life, society’s reluctance to confront death, and the nature of love and desire, often clothed in titles which exist somewhere between the naive and the disingenuous. The works typically make use of media that challenge conventional notions of high art and aesthetic value and subject-matter that critiques the values of late 20th-century culture.

Dead animals are frequently used in Hirst’s installations, forcing viewers to consider their own and society’s attitudes to death. Containers such as aquariums and vitrines are also hallmarks of his work; reflecting the formal influence of Minimalism and certain sculptures by Jeff Koons, they are used as devices to impose control on the fragile subject-matter contained within them and as barriers between the viewer and the viewed. A Thousand Years (1989; London, Saatchi Gal.), a bisected glass vitrine containing a flayed cow’s head, maggots, flies and an Insectocutor, references the tradition of vanitas painting in Western art; acting as a metaphor for the tenuousness of existence and for the drive to pleasure and desire in face of the inevitability of death, it also plays out a cycle of actual birth, death and decay, with the attendant responses of fascination and repulsion, within the gallery space. In and Out of Love (1991; see 1991–2 exh. cat.) was installed on two floors of a vacant shop in Woodstock Street, in central London. The upstairs room contained flowers, bowls of sugar water and white canvases with pupae attached from which exotic butterflies hatched, mated, laid eggs and died (some were crushed underfoot by gallery visitors) in a cyclical rehearsal of biological function. Downstairs the canvases held dead butterflies embedded into monochromatic fields of viscous household gloss paint, fulfilling a static aesthetic role. The exhibition stood as a challenge to the art connoisseur who sees art history as a series of collectable masterpieces, proposing instead that works of art are occasional manifestations of a continuous culture. The paintings were later sold individually to collectors. In Mother and Child Divided (1993; Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Mus. Mod. Kst), the four sections of a bisected cow and calf are displayed in tanks of formaldehyde between which the viewer can pass. The animals are preserved as in life, but at the same time are emphatically dead, with their entrails and flesh exposed. The immediate impact and shocking power of the work, clinically devoid of sentiment and yet referencing the most elemental of human emotions, that of the bond between a mother and child, are characteristic of Hirst’s sculptures.

Hirst’s paintings can be seen as a foil to his sculptural work, though they are similarly inconclusive, exposing contradictions without resolution as a condition of human existence. The ‘spot’ paintings, such as Arachidic Acid (1994; London, White Cube Gal., see 1997 publication, p. 236), make reference to Gerhard Richter’s colour-chart paintings, turning the grid-like structures into rows of coloured circles. They are named after pharmaceutical stimulants and narcotics, the chemical enhancers of human emotion, and yet take the form of mechanical and unemotional Minimalist paintings. Their detachment is further emphasized by the exploitation of procedures that can be simply carried out by assistants under his instruction. The ‘spin’ paintings, created by pouring household gloss paint onto spinning circular canvases, rework Abstract Expressionist gestural painting in a mechanized pastiche borrowed from a fun-fair entertainment. Yet their expressive titles, such as Beautiful, Shattering, Slashing, Violent, Pinky, Hacking, Sphincter Painting (1995; see 1996 exh. cat., p. 101), contradict the apparent irony of their creation. Hirst’s interest in contemporary society is further reflected in collaborative pop music projects and in his designs for the Pharmacy and Quo Vadis restaurants, London. He was awarded the Turner Prize in 1995.

Octavia Nicholson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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