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LONDON — It’s a hot mid-afternoon in the West End’s posh Mayfair district, and Damien Hirst is standing outside the glass double-doors of the White Cube gallery, looking every inch the devil-may-care prankster out of some early Shakespearean comedy.
At once instantly recognizable and wholly unrecognizable — black woollen beany hat pulled well down over his eyes, Balenciaga T-shirt, and billowy white trousers overprinted with flittery butterfly motifs — he’s in great good cheer, smiling and exchanging quips with his gangly-legged, long-haired mate. Leaning to sign the odd catalogue for a Japanese admirer, he adopts the exaggerated tilt of a rock guitarist squeezing the last drop of emotion out of a long and bendy note…
Inside, his new show of paintings is on the walls. It’s his first with White Cube’s founder Jay Jopling for some years, a dealer he neatly stepped around in 2008 in order to stage his own giant show of works at Sotheby’s. Frankly, who needs a dealer when you can organize your own auction that nets you £200 million? Or so the newspapers reported.
At White Cube, there’s a a glut of butterfly wings on view, circular paintings of them caught within concentric circles, medium-sized upstairs, much larger ones downstairs. The show’s called Mandalas, so there’s religion and spirituality in here somewhere, too, albeit of a fairly broad-brush kind that could perhaps encompass Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and in fact almost anything that might appeal to anyone inclined to slight feelings of vertigo when confronted with the unfathomable enormity of it all, and the passing fragility of nature…
What’s Hirst up to in general these days? Is there a definable trajectory since he bifurcated that shark in the 1990s, and larded the gruesome spectacle, pent inside its giant tank, drunk on formaldehyde, with a pseudo-philosophical title? Hirst turns in circles. He revisits his own past. He’s an obsessive. And the nature of his obsessions? Here are three: Beauty. Religion. Death.
Last year was not a classic for Hirst. In 2018, he staged one of the worst shows of his 30-odd year career in an 18th-century house in Norfolk called Houghton Hall. He was showing off a new series of works called Colour Space Paintings, 270 of them, all of them younger offspring of his dot paintings.
The staging was cack-handed, with Hirst’s paintings put into spaces from which larger canvases, many of them ancestral portraits, had been removed. You could see the grime, the nail marks, peeking out from behind. The works themselves were poorly executed, unconvincing variants on his dot paintings — the dots were more irregular; they bounced off each other as if in a pinball machine, you may have noticed. Their diminished quality reminded you that Hirst keeps three studios going. Had he taken his eye off the spot?
Hirst loves to work in series – in 2013 he published a complete catalogue of his spot paintings. There were 1,400 of them by then. Goodness knows how many more have been generated since. Consider this: How many paintings did Titian make in all? Estimates vary between 1,500 and 1,800. And what about Vermeer? Thirty-three. And Leonardo? Fifteen. Picasso? More than 10,000… Will Hirst beat even Picasso at the numbers game at the final reckoning?
Unfortunately, Hirst has been an erratic artist from the beginning, just as likely to fail as to succeed.These new butterfly paintings at White Cube are as good as those Colour Space Paintings were bad. They are also deeply troubling. Although the wings of butterflies are, in all their gleaming, iridescent fragility, stunningly beautiful to behold, what right does any artist have to tear them apart and incorporate them into his work as raw material — as Hirst has been doing intermittently for decades?
Set all moral queasiness aside, if you will, for the duration, and look at these paintings. One definition of mandala is soul, and you could regard these works as aids to meditation. They do repay long and closely attentive staring. At the centre of each one, there is a complete butterfly, quite a small one in every case, which seems to gain in size and import as you look at it.
Dozens of wings fragments then fan out from this central point in concentric circles, often overpainted – or at least partially overpainted – in household gloss. It is as if the turn of the wheel has scattered the butterfly outwards, into pieces of itself. These wing fragments, in their patterned flights, seem to both give off light and parry or reflect it. They shift from translucency to transparency and then back again.
Step back a foot or two, and you contemplate the painting’s circular shape in all kinds of ways, sacred and secular: a tondo of the Madonna and Child, the spinning wheel of the bicycle, a roulette wheel of fortune, a thrilling fairground ride, a dart board.
The entire show has a panache, a visual effectiveness, which manages to maintain a fine balance between a sense of generalized reverence, the brash visual flourish of a gaudy carnival spectacle, and the slightly mawkish magic of Victorian stained glass.
In each painting, a single color predominates. In each case, this is the color of the painting’s wooden frame: green, crimson, orange. Different color combinations make the textures look and even feel different. One painting appears light and unencumbered, another possesses the density of tightly stitched fabric. One sucks us into deep space, as if we are in the helpless grip of Poe’s maelstrom; a second leaves us airily free to contemplate the brightness of a shellac surface. There is, simultaneously, restlessness and stillness.
Downstairs, a three-panel work called “The Creator” (2019) dominates the gallery’s walls. Here black is in partnership with small, jewel-like particles, fleckings, glancings, of color. The turning circle of motifs is contained within a rectangle, which means that its edges are cut off: the circle fails to complete itself. The suggestion seems to be that the conception is too large for us to contemplate.
The whole of “The Creator” is reminiscent of the sweep and the enfolding darkness of the night sky, as well as the slow, gravely symphonic turning of the cosmos. In “Obscuritas” (2019), the rich density of the darkness — its velvety feel, its light visual fuzz — cause us to feel as if we are staring deep into thick upholstery. Hirst is deftly flirting, here and elsewhere, with ideas of the transcendental.
Is he a juggler at heart? Or is the Catholicism into which he was born ineradicable?
Damien Hirst: Mandalas continues at White Cube Mason’s Yard (25–26 Mason’s Yard, London) through November 2.