Monday, 16 January 2012

Damien Hirst Spot Paintings, Gagosian

Methoxyverapamil (1991)
People like Damien Hirst's Spot Paintings. They fulfil some sort of art hinterland between the ubiquity of Cath Kidston polka designs and the garish lighting of the European discotheque. They're uncontroversial, totally abstract, clean but colourful and uniform. They're familiar yet expensive. They're confounding.

At the London arm of the Gagosian Gallery's International Exhibition of Damien Hirst's complete spot paintings on Britannia St., there are lots of spot paintings. Some are on triangular canvases, one or two on circular canvases and plenty on the familiar rectangular canvas (and there are a smattering of 'colour chart' paintings which assign colour spots to each letter of the alphabet and each integer from 0-9). On one or two the spots are very large, on one or two they're very small. 

As in the majority of works of art, I found myself looking in two ways. Firstly in a sensory manner, assessing the effect that the picture had on me simply from looking at it. Secondly I went in search of some meaning - in the assumption that the picture might represent something.

With the brain in neutral  - waiting for a purely sensory reaction - I found myself looking at something increasingly 3D. The difference of tone in each spot is more important in  this than the colour. The colour itself becomes particularly nugatory at a distance where the overall effect of a painting is that it begins to appear duotone, black on white, like the benday dots of newsprint.

With that initial, epicurean hit of the paintings exhausted, I went in search of some sort of guiding aesthetic. There is no information about these paintings in the gallery's laminated notes beyond a list of the titles and dates of the works. There's precious little published online and no technical information in Hirst's book On The Way To Work (Faber, 2001). However, after some digging I came up with this handy, simple MoMA video guide (from a work created for the MoMA Color Chart Exhibition of 2008):

So: "the colour placement must be absolutely random; no colour can occur more than once in a painting; and the size of the gaps between the spots must equal the size of the spots. Paintings can end only at the edge of a spot, at it mid-point or in a gap." There is no algorithm. The assistants employed to apply the household gloss paint (Hirst stopped painting them personally some time ago) are at liberty to choose their own palette.

In short, the paintings are anonymous. They mean nothing.

This isn't a satisfactory conclusion. Obviously the work is attractive for its associations with a modern, infamous enfant terrible of the art market so the pieces will have a conferred value even as they are anodyne. And by value, I mean commercial value. But really, for an artist as significant as Hirst, there must be some aesthetic core to the paintings.
I just move colour around on its own. So That's what the spot paintings came from - to create that structure to do those colours and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of colour. 
There are discoveries along the way. That's what you do as an artist. You do a certain amount of working out beforehand, but then - Omigod! - something happens, a billion times more. It's just totally out of your hands. And that's what the spot paintings are.
(from On The Way To Work, p119 italics authors' own). Presumably the Omigod moment occurred somewhere following the work in progress spot painting of 1986 (right).

Of course, one doesn't simply move colour around. Piet Mondrian's final forré into his own de Stijl pioneering abstraction produced Broadway Boogie Woogie, a patterned work that is at once totally abstract but at the same time a vertical cross section of New York traffic. From the opposite perspective, the Ishihara colour perception test has no linear purpose but uses the tonal content of the colour spots to test for colour blindness.

Perhaps closer to Hirst are the almost directly analogous Colour Chart pictures of Gerhard Richter, which use oblong patches of clour where Hirst uses spots, although Richter employs a mathematical formula (i.e. a more strictly overdetermining set of rules) for deciding on the colours. Bridget Riley's use of colour is clearly not calculated, especially in the context of her work in which the incrementally adjusted repetition of shapes governs the flow and dynamism of her pictures.

The fact is that Hirst did in fact happen upon a good (it's by no means a perfect) formula for creating a pleasant colourist artwork, hidden in the cracks amongst all these other pieces. You can't ignore his words on the mini-genre, however disingenuous you might expect them to be:
What I want when I make a spot painting is I want to put it on a wall and I want people to look at it and look at the colours and think, 'Wow - what a great object.' And I don't really want them to think about anything else. I definitely don't want them to think about Damien Hirst. Whatever they've got in their life, I want this to enhance it and make it better... That's what art is. That's what I want.
 (from On The Way To Work, p83)

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