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Universal, timeless and immediately recognisable, when you think of Damien Hirst, chances are his Spots prints are what spring to mind. National and international acknowledgment was to follow, 7 years later Hirst would win the Turner Prize and 30 years on from that he is recognised as one of the most influential artists of the last half-century.
His work has come to be iconic in British culture and is best known for its recurring, unblinking, confrontational and often sardonic dialogue with death, mortality and the human condition. This could be in the guise of a 14-foot long tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991), a four-part sculpture of a bisected cow and calf (Mother and Child Divided, 1993) or a human skull studded with 8,601 diamonds (For the Love of God, 2007).
His Spots paintings and prints have become universally recognised, to the point where spots en-masse are synonymous with the artist. Their application and the theory behind it have helped to redefine international expectations of British art and contemporary art in general. The iconic nature of such work is in part because Hirst, almost more than any other artist of the ’90s, became familiar via the media, particularly following his Turner Prize win in 1995, and it is a situation that, at least in some ways, he relishes and uses to his own ends.
Hirst is one of the most ambitious artists of all time. The Spots works are often considered a late addition to his visual language but they in fact occur prior to any sort of serious recognition. It was 2 years before his seminal group show, back in 1986, that Hirst painted some loose hand-painted Spots on board. This was followed by his first Spots work on canvas Untitled (with Black Dot) in 1988. At Freeze, Hirst painted two near-identical arrangements of coloured spots onto the wall of the warehouse. He called the works Edge and Row.
Following Freeze, the artist started to significantly refine his creative process. Slowly, he began to employ assistants to create his Spot works, adding a factory-like approach to his practice. Any physical evidence of human intervention, for instance the mark of a compass point left at the centre of each spot, was removed, until the works appeared to have been constructed mechanically, or “by a person trying to paint like a machine” as he put it. For Hirst, it was a departure from years of experimentation with paint and collage and the first result of his search for a contemporary art form that could succeed without a reliance on an “already organised element”. Any problems he had previously had with colour, Hirst claims, were removed by the perfect arrangement of complimentary, yet never repeated, colours in the spots. Decision-making is pared down to become clinical, almost scientific. His processes in this endeavour allow room for both random and methodical practice.
The Spots works are created with geometrical precision, in angst-free colours, and titled after pharmaceutical ingredients much like his later spin paintings are produced on a rotating, uncontrollable table. The relationship between sculptural and painterly practice is close for Hirst “They’re an idea about the ultimate variety of paintings, or what you’d imagine a sculpture would look like under a microscope”.
The random and infinite colour series within the Spots pictures is integral to the works. Hirst explains that, “mathematically, with the Spots paintings, I probably discovered the most fundamentally important thing in any kind of art. Which is the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format.”
Beyond the aesthetic qualities of the work, the name of each piece holds a crucial clue as to their possible meaning. The names are chemicals, which indicate each piece is a set of pills, a code or genetic structure that contains the bi-products of the stated name. The names come from a book of medical definitions that Hirst referred to frequently. The descriptions he uses often outweigh any perceived benefits with hideous or dangerous side effects (toxicity, addiction, sickness) and align the Spot work to brutal socio-economic criticism of a corrupt society and human soul.
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