Los Angeles

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst keeps turning out variations on his grisly menagerie, extrapolating on the idea of death-as-sculpture with a parade of preserved sharks, lambs, cows, and their various body parts. Some of this work is spectacularly morbid: imagine Haim Steinbach and Jeffrey Dahmer collaborating on site-specific pieces for a municipal zoo. But Hirst is ultimately concerned less with instilling horror than with probing what remains of our capacity to be shocked. Tracing a circuit of denial and sham, his work performs a metaphysical autopsy on the corpse of visceral experience.

Compared to most of his shows, Hirst’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles was intimately scaled, as if aiming for a more meditative quality, though the familiar Grand Guignol elements were all in place. A pair of diminutive sharks hung suspended in formaldehyde-filled tanks, a cow’s head rested on the gallery floor in a bloody puddle, and a pair of skinned lambs stood side by side in individual Plexiglas cases (an homage to Silence of the Lambs?) In addition, several festively colored, abstract canvasses that might’ve been modeled after a brand of Beverly Hills wallpaper decorated the walls like advertisements for blissful ignorance.

While it may be tempting to sort these works into a hierarchy of repulsion and attraction, nothing is what it first appears to be. The grotesque cow skull proves to be a synthetic set piece, no more real than the mint-flavored syrup, a surrogate for blood. The paintings, collectively titled “Visual Candy,” 1993, are so emptied of intelligence that they’re believable only as movie props, never as actual art objects. As for the lambs, any sense of their physicality is compromised by the Plexiglas cases, which flicker with fun-house reflections. Despite the textured materiality of their stripped anatomies—the odd patches of fur and broken lines of flesh—the animals seem freakishly disembodied.

Our gut reactions aren’t merely neutralized by these paradoxes, they’re thoroughly confused—which isn’t an inappropriate state of affairs in an era when even biology is becoming a field of special effects. In the past, Hirst’s work has been criticized for being coldly and cynically spectacular, but, alongside the posturing and occaisionally pat formulations, this show hinted at a fairly complex questioning of how we respond to different types of cultural violence.

On one level, Hirst seems bent on bluntly reminding us of Nietzsche’s comment that our highest cultural products are expressions of sublimated cruelty. What’s most macabre in his Plexiglas mausoleum isn’t its display of pickled death,’ however, but its desublimation of Modernism’s starkly brutal geometries. With their slick Plexi boxes, Hirst’s installations have thehygienic sheen of a TV movie-of-the-week; yet, unlike the preening anality of ’80s commodity art, his work is upfront about linking its project of preservation to an obsessive morbidity.

Which is to say, he returns the repressed without glamorizing or sentimentalizing it. While Hirst may need to expand his vocabulary to avoid repeating himself, his brand of visual candy disarms our typical reactions to clean and dirty, pretty and disgusting, insisting that we rethink such polar categories, because they no longer make sense.

Ralph Rugoff