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Damien Hirst – No Love Lost / Nothing Matters

Damien Hirst, Nothing Matters / The Empty Chair, 2008, Oil on canvas, Triptych, each: 98 13/16” x 69 1/8” x 4 5/16”(incl. frame), © the artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy White Cube

Damien Hirst, Nothing Matters / The Empty Chair, 2008, Oil on canvas, Triptych, each: 98 13/16” x 69 1/8” x 4 5/16”(incl. frame), © the artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy White Cube

The Wallace Collection & White Cube - London

By Michele Robecchi

In a recent issue of Marcus Harvey’s magazine Turps Banana, Damien Hirst lively expressed his scarce appreciation for Luc Tuyman’s work. “Will someone get him a color box and a ruler? I hate that indecision in painting.” Whilst Hirst’s outburst is quite refreshing - artists seldom make such candid comments on their peers nowadays, especially when they are represented by the same gallery - what ultimately emerges is a touch of jealousy for an artist who managed to maintain colossal, commercial success, without losing a hint of his credibility. Indeed with monetary and public acclaim that no contemporary artist since Jeff Koons has enjoyed, critical credibility is possibly the only loose end Hirst has to fix.

Following years of serial, large-scale productions, Hirst staged the first step of his return to the solitary practice of painting in neutral territory. Created in a period of time between 2006 and 2008, the 25 new canvases of “No Love Lost” are a good match for the Wallace Collection, an old private institution in Central London, mostly notorious for its set of historic sculptures, porcelains and armors exhibited in furnished rooms of silk-covered walls and gilded cornices. Recurrent themes in the artist’s work such as skulls, cigarettes, and dots are here repositioned in a rather lugubrious context, providing a new reading of Hirst’s long-standing love affair with Francis Bacon and his obsession for life and death. The mood is unmistakably dark, and the descriptive character of the titles (Skull with Ashtray, Lemon and Cigarettes, Half Skull on the Table), as opposite to Hirst’s usual repertoire of long, catchy phrases, emphasizes the feeling that aging, as painting, is fundamentally a lone experience. Such a group of works could hardly have been made when Hirst was at the beginning of his journey, without being labeled as derivative. At this stage of his career, the risk that they run is to be dismissed as little more than a gimmick; but even taking into account this damning fact, it is undeniable that they possess a refreshing degree of energy and maturity. After all, what makes a good painting is not technical proficiency, but the atmosphere it creates, and these paintings, as with the work of Hirst’s nemesis Luc Tuymans, definitely cut the mustard.

The White Cube exhibition strategically opened only a month later, and, in contrast to the one at the Wallace Collection, is unexpectedly minimal. A handful of triptychs are dispersed in the two gallery sites, reproposing the same array of skeletal elements, fruit, knives, crows, and tables in a background more in tune with our familiar version of Hirst. If “No Love Lost” is an interesting diversion, “Nothing Matters” is the safest bet of where he is at and what is to come. It is a pity that people seem attracted mostly because the art is made by the master himself rather than by the quality of it. Hirst’s name is a distraction, but one that someone, as astute and media-aware as he is, has certainly foreseen. The fact that an academic eminence like Rudi Fuchs has been called to give theoretical support is an indicator of how Hirst wants this new stage of his career to be taken seriously. It is now up to him to show if this direction effectively represents a new course or is just a publicity stunt.

The Wallace Collection - (October 14, 2009 - January 24, 2010)

White Cube - (November 25, 2009 - January 30, 2010)

Michele Robecchi is an Italian writer and curator based in London. He is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Christie’s Education and an editor at Phaidon Press.

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