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.

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.

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.

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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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia