The beauty and ugliness of Damien Hirst

You'd have to be living under a rock — or have absolutely no interest in contemporary art — not to know that Damien Hirst is a superstar. For more than a decade he's been one of the top artists in the world, and just about everything he makes is worth millions of dollars. Damien Hirst, which just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is his first solo show in Denver or anywhere else in the American West.

Curated by MCA director Cydney Payton, who used her connections to put it together, the show consists of just four pieces, but each is a major example of Hirst's oeuvre. Two were loaned by the Goss-Michael Foundation, an organization established by Kenney Goss and former Wham! frontman George Michael that aims to expose Dallas art audiences to the latest British art. Payton has long wanted to do a Hirst show, so when Goss-Michael curator Filipo Tattoni-Marcozzi told her that two significant Hirsts were being taken off display, Payton jumped at the chance to bring them to Denver. But two pieces, regardless of how impressive, are not enough to fill the Large Works Gallery, so Payton connected with Hirst himself through MCA starchitect David Adjaye. Hirst and Adjaye are both part of the YBA (Young British Artist) movement.

"Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain," by Damien Hirst, bullock, arrows, formaldehyde, steel and glass.
"Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain," by Damien Hirst, bullock, arrows, formaldehyde, steel and glass.

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Through August 30, Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, www.mcadenver.org.

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Born in 1965 in Bristol, England, Hirst grew up in Leeds in a working-class family. When he was twelve, his parents split up; he stayed with his mother, who encouraged his drawing. He attended the Leeds College of Art and Design and then Goldsmiths, University of London. During his college years, his part-time job was in a mortuary, an experience that shaped his aesthetic sensibility — in particular, his famous "Natural History" series, which began in 1991 and in which he uses the corpses of perfectly preserved animals. The most famous of these, and the one that gave him entree into the big leagues of the art world, is "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," a shark suspended in formaldehyde inside a steel-and-glass vitrine. The piece, created when Hirst had a close relationship with the zillionaire collector Charles Saatchi, has been illustrated in magazines and on websites around the world. In 2003, Hirst had a major break with Saatchi, remarking that he (Hirst) was not Saatchi's "monkey." Saatchi sold the shark piece for $12 million the following year.

The "Natural History" series is one of several ongoing types of work. Hirst also does "Medicine Cabinets," in which steel grids in the form of curio shelves hold colored pills. He also creates paintings for the "Butterfly" series, in which he uses real butterflies; the "Spin" series, done with machines that spin paper as paint is automatically applied; and the "Spots" series, made of rigorously lined-up multi-colored dots. Many of these series make overt references to minimalism — the vitrines, the steel grids, the lined-up dots — but in recent years, Hirst has embraced hyperrealism, both in polychromed sculptures and in photo-realist paintings.

Hirst is a rare example of an artist who makes news. Last year, his sculpture "For the Love of God," a platinum cast of a human skull covered in pavé-set diamonds, was sold to an investment consortium that included Hirst himself for the ungodly sum of $50 million; it was said to have cost around $20 million to make. Hirst also bought back many of the things he'd sold to Saatchi, paying the collector enormous markups over the original prices. Investing in his own work in this way reveals how Hirst has been able to manipulate the art market. Last month, however, he outdid himself when he skipped over his galleries completely and sold his work directly through Sotheby's auction house in London. It was a dicey move, but it brought stunningly high prices. All of which makes it remarkable that some of these pieces are actually on public view in Denver.

Before I get to the show, however, let me mention the ethical concerns that I and others have about using preserved animals and human remains as art materials. I do understand how this relates to the history of Western European art, particularly proto-renaissance and early renaissance art in Italy, and to the medieval reliquaries that stock the treasuries of every cathedral in France. And I understand the conceptual aspect of Hirst's endeavors, in which he turns minimalism, pop art and arte povera inside out. What I don't like is the implicit cruelty and what that says about Hirst.

I'll segue now into how this sangfroid translates to his market prowess. Hirst's work is very expensive to make and couldn't have been done without a pal with lots of money. But by the time he and Saatchi had their falling-out, Hirst was rich and famous in his own right and no longer needed Saatchi. In addition, the recent Sotheby's sale reveals that Hirst didn't need his gallery anymore, either.

Because "Saint Sebastian: Exquisite Pain," the 15,000-pound gorilla of a piece — visible from the entry — is so overwhelming, I am going to discuss it last. Otherwise, I'd never even get around to mentioning the other three things in this show.

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