Arguably one the most successful and well-known artists in the world to date, Damien Hirst is a creative visionary, his brand as prolific as his artwork. Exhibited internationally, he works across sculpture, painting, drawing or installation to create artworks that are characterised by their intensity and tension. Taking inspiration from a range of sources, including Abstract Expressionists John Hoyland and Willem de Kooning, he has cultivated a style recognisable for its brash monumentalism and unapologetic gall.
Born in Bristol in 1965, Hirst emerged as a leading ‘enfant terrible’ in the Young British Artists (the YBAs) movement in the late 1980s and 1990s. Hirst led the way and was instrumental in their rise, curating the group exhibition Freeze in 1988, which has since come to define the group. Organised whilst Hirst was still a student at Goldsmiths College, London, the show included Sarah Lucas, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Tracey Emin, amongst others. Staking their arrival in the art world, the show set the tone for the group’s typically entrepreneurial attitude. From staging exhibitions in disused warehouses and shop-fronts to tearing around art fairs, they made their presence known not least for the provocative content of their work.
Hirst’s early works are scintillating and emphatically affronting. Dead animals were frozen in formaldehyde and live maggots and butterflies were put on display in a defiant move to confront life’s proximity to death. Growing up in Leeds, Hirst was fascinated from a young age with the physical presence of death, and frequently visited the city’s medical school to make life drawings.
THE ART OF DEATH
Hirst's Natural History series, perhaps his most notorious to date, played with museum convention by preserving dead animals in vast glass and steel cabinets. In a bid to both shock and reveal, the glass vitrine gives both proximity and distance from the animal, objectifying it and allowing for 360 degree views. As he said, ‘You can frighten people with death or an idea of their own mortality, or it can actually give them vigour.”
Enlarged anatomical model sculptures such as Hymn (1999-2001) with internal organs and muscle tendons on show and pharmaceutical cabinets lined with pills and packaging not to mention his renowned former restaurant installation The Pharmacy — demonstrate his fascination with the realities of life, death and the unwavering faith in science as an anecdote to mortality. His series, Medicine Cabinets and Pill Cabinets, are indictments of this belief and the uncertainty of existence. Their ordered minimalist compositions scrutinise a Renaissance rationality associated with scientific logic and empiricism. Placed in a gallery context, the works defy this rational project and through the use of empty medicine packets, highlight the highly profitable prescription drugs industry premised on selling the promise of cures. Hirst finds parallels with art and has said, “Art is like medicine–it can heal. Yet I’ve always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don’t believe in art, without questioning either”.
A similar visual ordering principle defines his well known Spot Paintings (1986-2012). Regular sequences of equal sized multi-coloured spots, perfectly painted on a crisp white background appear innocuous yet are another embodiment of his interest in dichotomies. At once joyous and discordant, no two dots or paintings, of which there are now over one thousand, are the same. The regularity and systematic approach to these works intends to be unnerving with the machine like precision of the dots disrupted by the sleight of the artist’s hand. He has explained that,‘…the spot paintings could be what art looks like viewed through an imaginary microscope. I love the fact that in the paintings the angst is removed ... the colours project so much joy it's hard to feel it, but it's there."
SKULLS & BUTTERFLIES
It is this ability to traverse emotional registers which keeps Hirst’s art pertinent and compelling. His Kaleidoscope Paintings, including thousands of butterfly wings; the internationally iconic For the Love of God (2007), a platinum cast human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds; and his ten-year long project, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017), an archaeological trawl of 190 works, are all testament to his ability to find universally engaging triggers which earn critical acclaim. From winning the Turner Prize in 1995 to being the subject of a major retrospective in 2004 at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy and another eight years later at Tate Modern in 2012, he is persistently relevant and has cemented his place in art history.
His deliberately inflammatory and arresting works are not without controversy. A regular in the tabloid press and favourite of the paparazzi, his work has been derided and criticised by many artists and journalists for its sensationalism and mass-production, which skews notions of originality. Hirst revels in this and uses his public profile to his advantage, building a world famous brand of his distinct aesthetic and even opening his own space, Newport Street Gallery, to show his personal collection. Credited with remaking the art market, he is represented by the major blue chip galleries Gagosian and White Cube where the demand for his work remains high — the first show of his 2018 Veil Paintings inspired by Pierre Bonnard, was completely out. Said to be one of the richest artists on earth, his originality and significance cannot be denied and his desire to make “art that just got you, whether you liked it or not," has most certainly been fulfilled.