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Damien Hirst takes over Gagosian 

Is Hirst’s show ‘more relevant than ever’ or ‘insultingly bad’?

Though he remains “Britain’s richest artist”, Damien Hirst has been through something of a “fallow period” in recent years, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. Where once it seemed his work could only shoot up in value, his commercial and critical standing have taken a dive lately, and it has been reported that he has been laying off staff. But if Hirst is down, he is not out, and last week, on the very day that Covid-19 restrictions began to be relaxed in England, he opened the first of a year-long programme of exhibitions at London’s Gagosian Britannia Street. Composed of 41 works created between 1993 and the present day, Fact Paintings and Fact Sculptures includes photorealistic paintings, conceptual installations and provocative sculptures. Its launch date had been carefully chosen to highlight “the return of one of art’s great life-forces” – and to draw attention to the notion that the artist’s career-long fascination with science and death is, in the context of a global pandemic, more relevant now than ever. Hirst has been the master of attention-grabbing publicity stunts, and his “positively scary prescience in judging the mood of the time” is widely recognised; his artistic merits, however, remain a point of contention. His new exhibition may be an attempt finally to prove that as well as being a “great showman”, he is a great artist. But does it convince? 

It does not, said Laura Freeman in The Times. On the contrary, the art on show here is insultingly bad. For one series of paintings, Hirst has taken digital photographs of subjects such as Notre Dame in flames, a nuclear mushroom cloud and even himself, dressed in medical scrubs, and reproduced them “pixel for pixel in oil on canvas”. The result is aesthetically vapid, evoking the output of “an inkjet printer: true to life, only blurrier, duller”. Elsewhere, there are pictures of butterflies – a signature Hirst motif – that are “no better than the art you get on ceilings over dentists’ chairs”. But worst of all are the mirrored vitrines styled to look like jeweller’s display cases, with titles such as F**king Entitled C***, Deluded Rich W**ker – and “that most loaded of four-letter words: Snob”. It takes “some gumption and no little contempt” to give such “disobliging titles” to pieces that confront the viewer with their own reflection. Perhaps Hirst thinks it’s funny; if so, he is wrong. 

The show is not uniformly bad, said Ben Luke in the London Evening Standard. Among the more “impressive works” is Cancer (2003), a cabinet filled with books on oncology: “its surgical steel and glass cabinet and the neutral, academic spines of the books belie the brutality of cancer, its devastation of the body”. As with all Hirst’s best art, it reflects on the themes of “science, belief and fear”, and it is genuinely thought-provoking. Unfortunately, however, pieces of this calibre are few and far between – and are drowned out by countless desultory works seemingly conceived on “the back of a fag packet”. Hirst variously presents us with “replicas of a tea tent” he encountered at a snooker tournament; “an unfinished kitchen unit with an unplumbed sink”; and, even more mystifyingly, “a stack of shelves with cardboard boxes” from his studio. Quite what he is trying to prove with this “unspeakably boring” dross is not entirely clear. But one thing is certain: this “dull” and “directionless” exhibition is a “mess”.

Gagosian Britannia Street, London WC1X (020-7841 9960). Until April 2022; gagosian.com 

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