Damien Hirst Can’t Paint, He’s Better at Ideas: Review

"Three Parrots with Guitar and Jug" (2010-12) by Damien Hirst. This was the third exhibition of oil paintings done by Hirst without assistants. Source: White Cube via Bloomberg

Bored with Damien Hirst? The signs suggest that he is too.

For years, he has been trying to get away from the idioms that made him famous -- pickled animals, paintings by assistants, pharmaceutical cabinets.

The latest results of Hirst’s efforts to break out are on show at White Cube, Bermondsey, in London: a series of old-fashioned oil paintings, all his own work, under the collective title “Two Weeks One Summer” (through July 8, prices from 550,000 pounds, or $693,935, to 2 million pounds).

This escape attempt hasn’t worked either.

I’m sorry to say this because I think Hirst’s desire to become a proper painter is admirable, and you have to be impressed by his determination to press on despite some of the most negative reviews in living memory. Nonetheless, the fact remains: He may be an immensely famous artist, but as a painter Hirst is a beginner.

This new batch of pictures has a quality that few would have associated with him. They are sweet, as well as incompetent. The genre is still life, sub-division memento mori. In the 17th century, such pictures tended to dwell on the transience of existence: Fruit and flowers, like all things, pass and decay.

Juicy Blobs

This is familiar Hirst territory. He always has been keen on decomposition. These pictures offer a pic’n’mix combination of oranges, birds, flowers, butterflies plus some novel elements: the trademark shark’s mouth, a background of his signature dots and a pickled fetus in a jar. None of this -- even the contents of the pickle jar -- looks chilling, shocking or even poignant. You are just conscious of bright colors and juicy blobs of paint.

The problem is that Hirst is essentially what he always protests he’s not: conceptual. He has a good grasp of the idea of painting as a medium. But understanding the theory isn’t enough. It’s no more good than an intellectual grasp of how to play the violin; you also need the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell suggests are necessary to do anything well.

Hirst is trying to do it all too fast and too prolifically. There are 35 of these pictures, yet only one thought among them, and that’s a cliche.

Bridget Riley has one or two points in common with Hirst. She was doing remarkable things with dots about the time he was born in 1965, as can be seen in a splendid London loan exhibition of her early paintings, prints and drawings at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, 38 Bury St., SW1, and Karsten Schubert, 5-8 Lower John St., W1 (“Bridget Riley: Works 1960-66,” through July 13).

Lines and Shapes

The difference is that while Hirst is currently failing to get much of an effect with pickled babies in bottles, shark jaws, etc., Riley in her early prime was able to create tremendous pizzazz and a pervasive sense of existential unease with just black lines and shapes on a white background.

When you look at a picture such as “Descending” (1965) or “Crest” (1964), the whole world seems to pulse and heave (early Riley is not recommended for sufferers from motion sickness). Space itself seems to be twisting and compressing as it might be on approaching a black hole.

The impact of Riley’s art depends, like all good painting, on a finely honed sense of visual nuance. These pictures, as the working drawings at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert reveal, were worked on like precision engineering. That’s the kind of effort required. Painting really well, Lucian Freud used to say, is almost impossible. Just wanting to be a painter is not enough.

Information: On the Damien Hirst exhibition, see http://whitecube.com; on the Bridget Riley shows, go to http://www.hh-h.com and http://www.karstenschubert.com.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Farah Nayeri on film from Cannes and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.

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