LONDON — Critics fiercely resist the idea of Damien Hirst as a painter. His pickled animals, cabinets — even, yes, his spot paintings — are pretty much universally accepted as a turning point in British contemporary art. Every time the former YBA grabs a brush, however, newspapers lash out.
It started back in 2008, when the artist filled the Wallace Collection with his "No Love Lost, Blue Paintings"— a series, Hirst was keen to point out, he had painted himself. For the Independent's Tom Lubbock, the dark indigo, Bacon-esque still lifes were not even "worth looking at." "They're thoroughly derivative," the critic wrote. "Their handling is weak. They're extremely boring." He concluded: "Hirst, as a painter, is at about the level of a not-very-promising, first-year art student."
The "Blue Paintings" have been conveniently left out of the current Tate Modern retrospective, which puts forward a very carefully edited version of Hirst's career. But there's a clear downside to this over-precious approach: Looking at his current Tate show, it becomes apparent that all of Hirst's best ideas occurred to him between 1988 and 1992 — during his last years at Goldsmiths and very early career.
Upon seeing Hirst's severed cow head covered with flies ("A Thousand Years," 1990), the late Lucian Freud is said to have told the fledgling artist: "I think you started with the final act, my dear." How insightful. Most of Hirst's subsequent pieces, including works for his famous 2008 "Beautiful in My Head Forever" auction at Sotheby's, have been endless declensions on the same few themes and formal strategies. Hirst's place in art history is already fully defined — and no one wants him to tarnish his "King-of-the-YBAs" crown.
The Tate show stuck to the canon, and was thus fairly well received. But things are now turning nasty with "Two Weeks One Summer," the artist's first solo show at White Cube Bermondsey, which opened yesterday and gathers together a new series of pictures painted by the artist in his Devon studio over the last two years.
In a review that has immediately gone viral, the Guardian's Jonathan Jones compares Hirst's pictures — still lifes with parrots, jars, flowers, and white dots — to the "sentimental paintings of desert scenes" by Colonel Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
Jones writes: "This is the kind of kitsch that is foisted on helpless peoples by Neros and Hitlers and such tyrants so beyond normal restraint or criticism they believe they are artists. I am not saying this to be cruel. There is a real analogy: Hirst like an absolute ruler must be utterly surrounded by a court of yes-people, all down the line from his painting shed to the gallery, if there is no one to tell him he is rowing himself to artistic damnation with these trivial and pompous slabs of hack work."
"Seriously — Mr Hirst — I am talking to you," he continued. "It seems you have no one around you to say this: stop, now. Shut up the shed. These paintings are abominations unto the lord of Art. They dismantle themselves. Each of these paintings — from the parrot in a cage to the blossoms and butterflies — takes on the difficulties of representational painting and visibly fails to come close, not merely to mastery, but to basic competence."
To judge the paintings in "Two Weeks One Summer" for yourself, click on the slide show.
"Damien Hirst, Two Weeks One Summer," May 23 – July 8, White Cube Bermondsey, London