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Review of ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. By Jamie Edwards

As a Renaissance man (my work focuses on Pieter Bruegel the Elder), I’m unashamed to admit that I just don’t “get” Damien Hirst. As an entrepreneur and businessman, credit where credit’s due. But with regards the art I’ve never really managed to think objectively about Hirst’s stuff. I guess that I’ve just grown accustomed to looking at fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art, meaning that a pickled animal simply jars with my expectations of what “art” is supposed to be all about.

I don’t take my uneasiness about Hirst to the same extreme as others have done, however. Hirst’s art divides opinion. Although some admire Hirst’s maverick personality and his avant-garde critique of conventional notions and narratives of what art is and when art existed, in others Hirst’s art arouses frank indignation. Julian Spalding scathingly described Hirst’s art as ‘the sub-prime of the art world’, adding ‘It’s often been proposed, seriously, that Damien Hirst is a greater artist than Michelangelo because he had the idea for a shark in a tank whereas Michelangelo didn’t have the idea for his David. … [but] what separates Michelangelo from Hirst is that Michelangelo was an artist and Hirst isn’t.’ ( The Independant 27th March, 2012) In my view, it’s exactly this kind of haughty presumption to make value judgements that has alienated most from the art world and should be avoided. Art and its appreciation is a subjective thing, and I don’t think that experts or critics should prescribe a view, especially one as extreme as Spalding’s.

I’ve always tried to be mindful that when it comes to art, one size really doesn’t fit all. I try to avoid judging art according to fixed, immovable categories such as “art” or “not art”, “artist” and “non-artist” etc.; as much as I don’t get Hirst, I am perfectly happy for others to get it. Just as much as people would be more than entitled to say they don’t get the appeal of Bruegel.  So, inasmuch as my own research must have prejudicially skewed my opinion of Hirst, I reckon we should just accept that there can be different kinds of art that don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Well, I decided to put this theory to the test when, for the first time ever, I took myself off with the sole intention of seeing a Hirst exhibition, at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. The Hirsts went on show here on October 6th as part of ARTIST ROOMS on tour, an initiative sponsored by the Art Fund that sees important contemporary artworks by influential artists being shown in galleries across the UK. Putting Hirst to one side momentarily, I really do think that this collaborative initiative should be praised for endeavoring to make the contemporary art world, which is usually very Londoncentric, seem that bit more relevant on a National scale. Hirst rarely exhibits outside of major cities and since his name will probably draw crowds and increase footfall at Walsall gallery, this can only be praised.

When it comes to the exhibition itself, though, I was initially disappointed to find myself confronted with Hirst’s face, twice(!), before I even got to see any of the art. Now I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with Hirst’s face, but these portraits—one of which shows Hirst looking rather pleased with himself in front of his Zebra in formaldehyde, inexplicably titled The incredible journey (2008) and worth a fortune, I guessseemed to confirm one of my preconceptions about Hirst: ego and celebrity coming before art.

Two portraits of Hirst hanging outside the exhibition rooms at Walsall Gallery

Perhaps overly-cynical, but it got on my nerves nonetheless.

Mild irritation ensued inside, since the very first thing I saw was one of those animals suspended in chemical preservatives, this time the Sheep titled (more explicably this time) Away from the Flock (1994). There seems to be no real justification for plonking this in the middle of the Main Hall, except for the fact that the formaldehyde specimens are easily Hirst’s most recognisable. And controversial! Again, another one of my preconceptions seemed to have been confirmed: controversy and the need to shock coming before art.

‘Away from the Flock’ inside the Main Hall. Above, ‘beautiful c painting’

My attempt to maintain an unequivocal position seemed to be proving untenable. Quickly, I was veering off into Spalding’s realm…

View of room showing: ‘The Pharmacist’s Creed’ and ‘Pharmacy Wallpaper’ (left); ‘Monument to the Living and the Dead’ (right)

OK”, I thought, “so I don’t get the animals in tanks thing, move on”. And to my surprise I actually found some of the stuff thought-provoking and even uplifting. The exhibition’s highlight and its most successful room is undoubtedly the one housing the Controlled Substances Key Painting (1994), Monument to the Living and the Dead (2006) and The Pharmacist’s Creed (1997-98), the latter of which is hanged against Hirst’s Pharmacy Wallpaper (2004). Forgetting about “meaning” for a moment, this room is simply a nice space to be in. Perhaps it’s the colourfulness of the works.. the brightness of the lighting… or the scarcity of the exhibits (both in terms of number and imagery). Not sure, but I liked the feel of this particular gathering. It was a bit of “Eureka!” moment for me and I suddenly understood what people meant when I’ve heard them say that Mark Rothko’s canvases make them “feel” a particular way.

Moving on though as we inevitably do to the murkier business of “meaning”, the exhibition’s interpretation told me that these works all intervene on the issue of life, death, faith and belief, and suggest that modern medicine has usurped God’s spiritual benevolence. In our increasingly secular society we apparently–we are told–habitually place our faith and hope for life in science instead of the Divine (whether that’s good or bad, I’m undecided and I suspect Hirst is, too). The Monument meanwhile frames and contextualises the whole of the room. Showing real butterflies stuck to gloss on canvas, suspended as though frozen in flight, this collage actually harkens back, conceptually, to momento mori iconography,reminding us (in much the same way that skulls in older art do)  that life is transient and fleeting. Altogether, this room struck me as being actually quite clever, and I hadn’t really considered Hirst’s indebtedness to iconographic conventions before. “Perhaps there’s more to Hirst”, I thought.

The above mentioned room even helped me to make sense of the Gallery’s newfangled Art and Religion room. Usually, this room, with its plain walls, displays some of the older art from the permanent collection, including two (sumptuous) sheets from an illuminated manuscript made in the 1300s. When I first stepped into this room, I assumed that the wallpaper now surprisingly adorning the walls was a rather eccentric renovation. It turns out, of course, that it’s the Pharmacy Wallpaper again, and knowing that, the reasoning behind juxtaposing Hirst with fourteenth-century illuminations from a Book of Hours becomes clearer.

All very interesting. But this show was making me vacillate. Was I now becoming pro-Hirst? Do I get it, or not?

I returned to Away from the Flock and read the label this time. A play on the conventional Agnus Dei iconography, this installation(? Sculpture? Readymade?… whatever) supposedly subverts the conventional associations of the Lamb of God by representing the sacrifice of life for the sake of art. Hmm.  Maybe? But I’m just not sure about this one and I still think that Away from the Flock really is arbitrarily positioned in the show simply because of its fame. (This isn’t, by the way, a value judgement, and the tank with sheep is in fact a rather fascinating object. But I just don’t find some of the interpretation offered in this show very convincing…)

Hirst’s spin paintings are represented by the beautiful c painting (1996). Apparently, this and Hirst’s other spin paintings challenge the idea that “high” or “fine art” requires the direct intervention of the artist’s hand. Spin paintings are made by mounting the canvas onto a revolving turntable and pouring paint onto the spinning support. You or I could do this, and the point is indeed to show that anybody, a child or fully-fledged artist, can produce something legitimately describable as a work of art. However, I don’t think that these psychedelic tondi can really make claims on behalf of the democratising and equalising potential of art, since it’s precisely because they are Hirsts that justifies their display in the gallery. I doubt whether Tom, Dick or Harry’s spin paintings would make it onto the gallery wall. The spin paintings therefore purport to essay against the notion of the virtuoso artist-author, but in the end, the institutions of art actually render them complicit in the cult of the artist. Indeed, the exhibition’s curator was apparently aware of the spin paintings’ tenuousness, since it’s hung high above the entrance door where it can easily be missed. The beautiful c painting neither has any thematic justification for its inclusion, since it in no way relates to the themes of life, death and faith that provide the main concept linking Hirst’s art to the permanent collection at Walsall.

A glimpse of ‘beautiful c painting’ from a stairwell

In all, I reckon it’s well worth seeing the Hirsts while they are in Walsall. Seldom is such a big name shown in such “provincial parts”. And the show is successful insofar as it provokes all kinds of interesting comparisons and analogies, of the like that have certainly altered my perceptions of Hirst and some of his art. A good exhibition, I think, should always make you challenge your own presumptions, and this does.

ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst runs at Walsall till 27th October 2013. New Art Gallery Walsall, Gallery Sq, Walsall, WS2 8LG. Open Tue to Sat 10am-5pm, and Sundays 12-4pm. Admission Free.

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