The art of Damien Hirst is concerned with themes, ideas and feelings which are fundamental to human existence, and which, when the rhetoric and discussion of art itself has been stripped away, will remain as the inviolable truth of our common condition. In this, Hirst is working in a lineage which pre-dates the formal history of art, and extends to the earliest expressions of individual and social existence: the enshrinement of beauty and the agency of rare and precious materials; the drive to understand ourselves; the equivalent need for mystery, awe and enchantment; and above all the awareness of mortality trough the entirety of life.
An alternative reading, however, could be that Hirst is asserting that the much-touted great divide between traditional culture, a culture of depth and foundations, and post-modern culture, a culture of surfaces – cultivated superficialities of the image – is no divide at all.
“There’s only ever been one idea of art”, said Hirst. “The only reason why we do anything is to search for an answer to those questions: why, where, what, who? Where we do come from, where are we going, and is there a reason? The greatest paintings of all time are about that”. “I don’t want to tell anybody what to think, I just want to make you think, and make you think along with me. There are no answers, only questions, and hopefully the questions will help guide you through the darkness”. Hirst is a continuing search through the blank spaces of human experience in preparation for the day when we must face our fears and the idea of “The physical impossibility of Death in the mind of someone living”.
The images of skulls, so frequently met throughout the history of art, recur in artist’s works as the symbols of mystery that do endure because of their power. Even as kitsch, these works by Hirst are still the object of reflection and instinctive catalyst to the inner dialogue. Once started, you keep going down it until you have solved something for yourself. In his iconic interpretations of the classical reminder of death in the midst of beauty, artist admits: “I obsess about death and mortality, especially my own. The things you obsess over are the things you make art about.”
He has been using coloured butterfly wings to give a churchy, stained-glass window effect in painting. The dazzling symmetry of his Rose Window, constructed of butterflies and metallic paint on canvas, in which the fragility and extravagant color becomes the basis for a circular ornamental mosaic – straightforwardly replicates the medieval rose window at Durham Cathedral. It’s a recurring image in art history, the butterfly as the soul: fragility and mortality as a fragile beauty of life.
The canvases encrusted with butterflies, diamonds and precious stones, apparently delicate but coated with the hard sheen and glamour of Western consumer culture, reflect the narrative and drama of empathetic relationship between mortality, consciousness and beauty.
By employing different objects simply in this role of a part of the whole, Hirst questions the value of each, and whether you can truly know the artistic value of a pill, a diamond, or a spot. His artistic vision provides deep emotions to its viewer, as well as fundamentally questions what art is.
Hirst’s spot paintings have been a source of controversy in the art world since their first appearance in the mid-1980s. Uniquely coloured dots are arranged in a precise grid; the regimented pattern implies order and structure, yet looking at the painting there is an underlying sense of chaos. The artist explains this as due to the lack of satisfying colour interplay: “If you look closely at one of these paintings a strange thing happens: because of the lack of repeated colours there is no harmony. We are used to picking out chords of the same colour and balancing them with different chords of other colours to create meaning. This can’t happen. So in every painting there is subliminal sense of unease; yet the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there.” Yet it gave the artist the control over colour in painting he was looking for: “The thing that was causing me problems in painting was colour, finding a structure where I could lay it down, be in control of it rather than it controlling me. Once I’d done that, I didn’t really have problems with colour anymore.”
The spot paintings are exemplary of the approach taken by the artist to much of his oeuvre – each individual object, be it a pill in his Medicine Cabinet or a spot in the Spot Paintings, is completely equal to the next in its value to the greater whole and come together to create a unified composition.
“Where did I get the idea for these glass boxes? I have always loved Bacon paintings. I have always loved glass as being something dangerous and something to keep you away. You can see through it but it is solid. I have always loved that kind of idea. I had the glass on the Medicine Cabinets. I loved that, using glass in a way that it is not a picture frame. Then I just wanted to make an art work that was about something important…” D. Hirst
His identification of such empathetically charges raw materials which he renders not merely articulate, but fluent in meaning and emotional depth, regard the art by Damien Hirst to the playful intellectualism of Marcel Duchamp and the brutal corporeity of Francis Bacon’s depiction of the human form. A founder of the Young British Artists Movement, that presented to the art scene of 90-es a new generation of world established artists, Damien Hirst has created a new page of the art history, showing his works in such institutions as Tate Gallery (London), Museum of Modern Art (New York), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Fondazione Prada (Milan), Israel Museum (Jerusalem), The Broad (Los Angeles).