Thursday, 12 November 2009

No Love Lost - Julie Campbell reflects on Damien Hirst at the Wallace

whilst in london for the TINAG festival, we brunswick bluestockings managed to take time out from our urbanist duties to enjoy a mooch out and about in the capital: whilst i went round the corner to the sophie calle exhibition at the whitechapel, julie adventured further afield to the damien hirst exhibition at the wallace.
its rather fashionable to loath hirst, and his foray into 'proper' painting hasn't been without its detractors, as though hirst has either sold out and gone traditionalist or doesnt have the right or qualifications to make a mark on canvas at all. all in all its difficult to get beyond the hype when confronting an artist as infamous as hirst, so when julie agreed to share her thoughts and feelings about her visit, i was eager to read them. and hope that you will be too.....
many thanks julie for this beautiful meditation, reproduced here in full....
No Love Lost

Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst

---------------this is not an art review------------

White lines criss-cross through every painting (bar one).
Lines that denote the parameters & perimeters of reality and perception.

As though Hirst slammed a length of timber onto the canvas surface and scratched hundreds of thin lines in haste, in desperation – or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing, knew what these demarcations were meant to imply.

They striate, radiate and scaffold space like spectral architect’s drawings. They set up a network of spatial territories; boundaries, imagined rooms, antechambers, corridors, and non-spaces.
They unite objects, surfaces and space in a spiderweb geometry draped across the frame that suggests an underlying Matrix-esque logic...a Grand Plan.
They seem somehow both terribly frail, yet as implausibly strong as the cables of a parachute, or the cord of a tightrope.
They are like cordons separating us off from colour, flesh, warmth, life.
They come from nowhere and lead nowhere…

Because, these paintings are a matter of Life and Death: they confront the human journey across the tightrope of existence; our wobbly navigation above the inexorable void.

Across and inside the surface are smeary modulations of paint-movement; of application & erasure, second thoughts and losses of heart. Memory tells me inky blacks and oily midnight blues dominate; standing in front of these paintings for long enough, I seem to step into the gloop, and intuit further colours...fleeting purples bulge momentarily…a streak of grey pulses faintly…crimsons swim darkly below the surface like sea-monsters ..Here in the painting I am fathoms down, into the deepest colour of all, that of the void.

This straining and twisting in the mire seemed like something trying to assert itself, something trying to be born: meaning itself.

Dots, sharks and butterflies. These Hirst motifs are reiterated here in a new awful truth: the bright ‘butterfly paintings’ are shadows of their former selves, now scraps of wings floating in darkness. The shark in formaldehyde was a majestic presence, even though it was dissected. Now it is reduced to a skeleton fragment, a plaintive jaw weeping and protesting soundlessly to no-one.

In previous work, Hirst’s dots seemed joyful, playful. Dots re-feature in many of these paintings; here their vitality is diminished to pale dabs like the blinking patterns of towerblock lights; perhaps they allude to cities past and future… Atlantis or Bladerunner, gleaming sadly like civilizations swallowed up.

Occasionally a seemingly random object appears: a startlingly yellow lemon…the dark leaves of a houseplant…a table…an ashtray. These seem modern emblems of memento mori, of ancient ceremony updated; the wine and bread are now mundane fragments, poignant because of their familiarity.

The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth; this large triptych particularly moved me. The right-hand panel features a large set of Jaws-y jaws. Staring into those jaws as they roared their catastrophic Message of Emptiness, I felt my hair blown back as the horror reached shrieking point. ..this void-filled shark jaw is infinitely more violent than the hacked-up shark bodies.

(As I walked through the exhibition, the walls, floor and ceiling began to tremble...a corner of wall peeled back to reveal gaping blackness...the Nothing behind the fa├žade started to become palpable…)

The Wallace Collection, its architecture and furnishings, are all designed to elevate, impress and glorify. Velvet carpets drape marble staircases. Lavish gold frames fill the walls. In the context of these luxurious surroundings, Hirst’s work presents a stern remonstration; all that is now solid shall melt into air. Gold turns to dust. The skulls laugh mockingly, unimpressed by the grandeur.

The skull is present in nearly every painting, chief representative of absence, the calling-card of Death. I think of the charismatic Death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal: he would like this exhibition. The skulls are unbelievable reminders of the immutable Fact. I wiggle my skull around but decide no, that can’t possibly be how I end up. Also, they are vulnerable: is there anything so lonely as a skull? No lips to talks with, it stares out longingly for all time. I used to be alive like you, it wails, trying to be enthusiastic, trying to persuade me its still with it, still got it. But all its ‘got’ is being dead, forever.

These paintings have their genealogy in the old masters and Bacon...but the sumptuousness of these works have been reconfigured to arrive at starker conclusions in Hirst’s vision. The corporeal flabbiness of flesh has been denuded. It melts away. Bacon’s kaleidoscopic palette has been sucked into a black hole, there’s nothing left but varying shades of blackness, which are quite endless. The life element has been emphatically cordoned off; the signage reads ‘you are now entering the waste land’.

Bringing your own inner code of associations to an exhibit completes the circuit between artist, gallerist and viewer. I had a good chance of ‘liking’ this exhibition, because Hirst’s new work engenders many ‘things I like’: there’s the Joy Division song title, large black panels carving unknown spaces into the 2D plane, questions about existence and meaning, paint, psychological spaces, more questions, disturbing answers, physics, philosophy, laughing blackly.

A scientist on TV just said; ‘a physicist finds infinity abhorrent’. So do I!

This subject never gets boring; it is the story of our annihilation.

I am enraged at the prospect of not existing. Tears well impotently in my eyes.
I leave the gallery feeling enervated, shaken, empty, alive; looking forward to the warmth of the company of friends.
Painting couldn’t seem more relevant, more urgent.

Julie Campbell 11/11/09

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