New York

Damien Hirst

Gagosian Gallery

“If it wins, it wins through intimidation.” This was David Rimanelli’s concluding assessment of Damien Hirst’s last solo exhibition in New York, also at Gagosian Gallery, published in these pages in 2000. A meticulously designed production number, the show bore a typically verbose pseudoscientific title—“Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings”—and, regardless of its critical or financial success, it packed ’em in like the blockbuster it was. Hirst’s belated return to the city, the more tersely (though still excitedly) titled “The Elusive Truth!” elicited comparable attendance figures (it’s been a while since I’ve stood in line outside an opening), but saw the original YBA trade in his customarily theatrical taxidermic and faux-anthropological sculptures for an underwhelming display of naturalistic oil-on-canvas paintings. Ballsy perhaps, but hardly intimidating.

Indeed, it was odd to see an artist who has generally employed any material means necessary in his mordantly funny quest for the blindingly obvious—his oft-repeated message being, more or less, that we’re all gonna die—turn to the most conventional medium of all. So odd, in fact, that I was put in mind of the radically tame “experimental” porn film drooled over by the jaded protagonists of Martin Amis’s 1975 novel Dead Babies (a very Hirstesque title). If Amis’s crew had previously witnessed such depravity that only the sight of a “normal” couple making fumbling, fully clothed first moves could get them off, perhaps Hirst, tired of the chainsaw and the formaldehyde syringe, now gets a perverse kick from picking up a brush (or at least from having others do so on his behalf). Of course, he has painted before—his “spot” and “spin” canvases were ubiquitous in late-’90s London, infiltrating graphic, fashion, and interior design to an extent that nothing else has since Op and Pop. He has also consistently worked with assistants and even, in the case of Painting by Numbers 2, 2001, issued cute little kits allowing entry-level collectors to get a whiff of the enamel. But painting “things” is a new enterprise and, on the evidence presented here, a seriously misguided one.

So what was the problem? (Most commentators—though apparently not collectors, who were rumored to have dropped up to a ludicrous two million dollars a pop for the larger works—agreed that one existed.) Part of it was certainly the bald inadequacy of Hirst’s quasi-photorealist technique, which veered into pointless pastiche (a cynical nod to Luc Tuymans in Anaesthesia, 2002), succumbed to nihilistic self-reference (paintings of photographs of spot paintings and pill sculptures), or just fell awkwardly, ineptly short. That some were unaccountably sharper-looking than others also brought Hirst’s use of assistants (rarely a critical issue these days, and never in the artist’s previous output) weirdly to the fore. Yet far from constituting a point of real interest, this immediately became just more grist for the rumor mill—an apparent embarrassment to the gallery, who felt it necessary to reassure punters that the Master had put in at least some time on each and every picture. As to subject matter, there were the expected Hirst overdoses of drugs (Addicted to Crack, Abandoned by Society, 2004–2005), medical horror (Autopsy with Sliced Human Brain, 2004), and sensationalist topicality (Suicide Bomber [Aftermath], 2004–2005), but all had uniformly passed from hot to lukewarm. (If it’s gross-out you’re after, a quick visit to [“PURE EVIL SINCE 1996”] offers way more bang for your buck.)

“The Elusive Truth!” may or may not prove to be the death knell of a bloated and undiscriminating market, as some have already hailed it, but either way, its combination of the halfhearted and the overblown made for a profoundly disheartening viewing experience. The overarching impression it left—one that a woefully thin hang and laughable “just the facts” press release only underscored—was of a curiously amnesiac attempt at “back-to-basics,” a self-defeating retreat from the brutality of fact into the banality of illustration.

Michael Wilson