The most modest in its appeal is "Nothing Is a Problem for Me," from Hirst's "Medicine Cabinet" series, and was loaned by the artist himself. In it, Hirst has fun with modernism. The cabinet is a functionalist wall-mounted set of white shelves trimmed in wood; it looks like a high-end bathroom unit. The shelves are covered with pill bottles and other packaged medications with their labels visible, in contemporary graphic styles. Although everything Hirst has assembled is modernist, by using it to connect science and the body as well as pills and well-being, Hirst has firmly planted the piece in the center of postmodernism.

This same dialectic between modern and postmodern is seen in the two butterfly paintings here, "The Incorruptible Crown" and "War After War."

In "The Incorruptible Crown," which has a pop-art character, Hirst has tightly arranged the dead butterflies wing-to-wing on a dark-blue field. It's weird, but the butterflies read like a digital photo pushed through Photoshop.

"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.

Details

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

But in "War After War," which riffs on minimalism, the butterflies are widely scattered and stand up off the surface of two contrasting dark color fields. "War After War," which was the second work provided by Hirst, is one of the last butterfly paintings, as the artist has announced that he'll no longer be doing them.

And now to the star of the show: "Saint Sebastian: Exquisite Pain," from the "Natural History" series. The vitrine is scrupulously finished, with a magnificent standard applied to its glass-and-steel construction as well as to its flawless white paint. Inside, in a bluish-green liquid atmosphere, is a bull calf, called a bullock, that's been lashed with steel wire to a vertically set steel beam. The bullock's beautiful fur is pierced by metal arrows with multi-colored foils. Purportedly, Hirst used a crossbow to inflict the arrows on the dead beast, which he acquired from a slaughterhouse. Saint Sebastian has been frequently depicted in Catholic art, and he's always rendered as a young male tied to a tree or post and pierced by arrows. Since part of Saint Sebastian's iconography is his beauty, many of these paintings have a homoerotic quality, and he has become a sort of patron saint of gay men, which explains why the Goss-Michael Foundation has this piece.

The work is compelling yet repellent. The depictions of the martyrs from the history of art rarely capture the gut-wrenching narrative that's laid out in them. In "Saint Sebastian," the tragedy of the death of the male calf is brought right into our faces. I can say honestly that it's haunting. Despite my reservations about Hirst, he's brilliant and has an eye for beauty, even if his mind goes in for ugliness.

Though the MCA has almost always showcased interesting and significant works of art, it has never before had the opportunity to exhibit pieces as valuable as these. And that happened because of the credibility Payton built for the place during her tenure.

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