New York

Damien Hirst

Having entered the arena of mass-media attention occupied by such titans of overexposure as Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst can cheerfully scoff at the modest claims of art criticism. For all the brickbats hurled at him, there is the critic’s temptation to just say uncle, to agree to be amused if not absolutely charmed, to assert that, regardless of the apparent vulgarity of certain individual works, Hirst possesses that supremely uncritical attribute, “talent.” The apparent “unoriginality” of his work—its reliance on Surrealist shock techniques and Minimalist presentational modes—doesn’t detract from his brilliance as a Pop personage, a vendor of attitudes. Indeed, perhaps the best thing Hirst’s work affords is an opportunity to consider the fortunes of the Pop-art attitude today. One can’t deny Hirst his success, and not only as a star of the art world (and the world at large). But there remains a certain tedium in works that so relentlessly trade on bluntness, on the stratagems of morgue-and-autopsy horror. If disagreeing with Hirst on aesthetics proves fruitless, so too does a complacent embrace of his taste and mindset.

Hirst’s exhibition at Gagosian, laboriously titled “Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings,” is much better than his 1996 show at the same venue, at least in a conventionally arty way. Unlike the carnivalesque, everything-about-Damien mess of ’96, this exhibition is distinguished by a certain visual clarity; Hirst has styled the show very precisely. Pop and Minimalist signifiers mesh in an agreeably aesthetic way. Throughout the sprawling galleries, one leitmotif signals another, ceiling-high graphs echo rectilinear vitrines, bobbing Ping-Pong balls suggest spot paintings and even pills. Overall, it’s a well-pulled-together outfit—and one that completely eschews the most signature Hirst element, animal carcasses in formaldehyde (he restricts himself here to skeletons).

We all know about Hirst’s death fixation. As this is a commonplace preoccupation, it lends the artist currency in a way that the overlay of colors, say, or the institutional trappings of the art world do not. Nevertheless, it is too obvious. Visiting the gallery several times, one grows a little tired of thinking, Death, yeah, right. Most of the works, which are extremely tidy, are more conventionally pretty than they are gruesome. As framing devices, the omnipresent vitrines render almost everything agreeably pictorial. They provide “distance.” (The really gross stuff—e.g., nasty forensic photographs—is confined to the exhibition catalogue.) In Adam and Eve (Banished From the Garden), 1999, the artist strains for horror, with two shrouded figures lying on gurneys amid the tools of the pathologist and, one assumes, the remains of his lunch, a half-eaten sandwich. Queasiness brushes against humor. Figures in a Landscape, woo, means dismembered figures: Behind a cluster of neatly tied garbage bags the artist has installed an armoire and scrawled on the mirror, in bloody-lipsticky red, “Stop me B4 I kill again.” Here the text is altogether de trop, and the bags, in combination with the work’s title, are quite implicitly grisly enough. But Hirst, true to his neo-Pop bluntness, never shirks the obvious, as in Lost Love, woo, and Love Lost, 1999, both of which can be summarized as gynecologist offices–cum–fish tanks. A quotation from the artist in the exhibition catalogue drolly encapsulates the meaning: “Women smell of fucking kippers.” Charming. An Unreasonable Fear of Death and Dying, 2000, consists of two vitrines, one enclosing a rather miserable-looking sitting room, the other an adjoining toilet. Crummy potted plants nail the coffin shut on claustrophobic domesticity, loneliness, and boredom. Almost as an afterthought, a chain saw rips through an easy chair. Works such as these evince something of the “Britishness” of New British Art perhaps, a sense of social foreclosure, of a predetermined gloom and doom that sucks the Life out of life no less certainly than the depredations of age and disease. A soulcrushing ticky-tackiness. Still, it all comes off as rather sophomoric, the sensibility attuned with that of a Goth teenager.

Two impulses dominate Hirst’s exhibition: the desire to narrate and the desire to display. The aforementioned works belong to the narrative tendency. Display seems to control more rigorously the “formal” works—Hirst in a subtle vein—such as The Void, woo, certainly one of the best set pieces here, a shallow case filled with exact models of 8,000 pills. Other displays enclose small skeletons (dogs, cats, birds, snakes, etc.), gridlike arrays of surgical instruments, and anatomical models. These could be described as Hirst’s Neo-Geo-a-la-Haim-Steinbach pieces, his I-Shop-Therefore-I-Am-an-Artist works. They have even greater clarity than the ragged, somewhat Baconesque mise-en-scénes of death and despair. But once one has experienced the full discomfort that comes with seeing so many unpleasant tools—or the slack-jawed “wonder” promised by the title Something Solid Beneath the Surface of Several Things Wise and Wonderful—these pieces can seem rather wan. Overall, the exhibition is a miracle of overproduction. If it wins, it wins through intimidation.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.