Saturday, 24 October 2009
The good thing about Damien Hirst’s latest batch of work, his first ‘serious’ foray into painting by his own hand, is that they reproduce fairly well. Unfortunately this means that when one sees them in the flesh some disappointment, if not jaw dropping horror, may result.
Poor old Damo. However rich and successful and bravade one is, it must sting to have almost every art critic on the planet pan the creative results of your latest existential crisis. I don’t particularly want to add my voice to the cacophony, but it’s difficult to get around the fact that these paintings really are so dreadful there’s almost nothing can be said in their defence.
Historically I’ve always been rather a fan of Damien Hirst. The early formaldehyde works were bold, brave and eloquent, they captured the voice of a generation whilst simultaneously creating a truly pivotal moment in the history of British Art making. On top of that he’s a unique showman and entertainer, a powerhouse of energy and an incredibly savvy businessman. All that in one man is pretty exceptional and I take my hat off to him.
So what’s occurring now?
The main problem, or perhaps one of many problems, seems to be that we’re seeing a conceptual sculptor painting. It’s a brave transition to make. Stepping beyond the tried and tested is no mean feat. Pushing personal boundaries takes guts - nobody can take that away from him. I’m just not sure of the wisdom of taking up a practice for more or less the first time and in under three years expecting to produce work that’ll stand up alongside the likes of Poussin, Velaszquez, Gainsborough, Frans Hals etc. Maybe a bit ambitious? Ambition is a laudable enough trait but it needs to be served with temperance. To make the transition from sculptor to painter is a big deal. It’s not going to happen overnight. Transitions take time and if they’re not allowed that time, if they’re rushed, then someone usually ends up with egg on their face. And the worst part of it is that the person wearing the slightly foolish eggy grin usually can’t see it. It all becomes a bit embarrassing. Trying to run before you can walk is rarely a smart move. I know because I’ve tried it often enough, and always to my detriment. Impatience and sagacity never go hand in hand.
The whole sticky mess puts me in mind of the poker player’s mantra: “to master poker you must first master patience and discipline. A lack of either is a sure fire disaster, irrespective of other talents.” Ironically the characteristics that got Hirst where he is today are probably going to be the same that’ll be his undoing.
It’s not just Damien. There’s a lot of terrible painting out there, and a lot of mediocre derivative painting, which, for my money, might almost be worse. But one artist who is neither of these is Gideon Rubin, whose work is currently forming the inaugural show at Rokeby’s new location on Hatton Wall.
One of the first things that struck me about the installation of paintings that makes up the exhibition ‘1929’ was – if you’ll excuse my coining a very cheesy phrase - its almost breath taking beauty. And for the Parmesan shavings: it literally stopped me in my tracks. It did!
For a while now the art world has been on a bit of a downer as far as beauty is concerned, particularly with regard to painting, which I think is a bit of a shame. Whilst ‘pretty pretty’ probably isn’t my thing, at the same time I don’t find anything inherently problematic with something retaining a degree of visual appeal. For me visual appeal does not automatically equate to conceptual vacuity. It seems a fairly valid notion that a thing can look good and also have interesting things to say, maybe even interesting things to say on the subject of why it looks good. Just recently it has seemed as though if a painters work isn’t down right ugly, then it’s immediately dismissed as running dangerously close to being purely decorative. And of course nobody wants to be that or even anything approaching that. So we all make sure we back the really really ugly painting so that even the uninitiated couldn’t imagine for a second that the work we are associated with is anything other than serious with a capital ‘S’. Well, call me arrogant and patronising (yes, don’t worry, I’ve been called worse, I can take it on the chin) but I think I can tell the difference between a painting that is primarily decorative and a painting that is beautiful and at the same time conceptually challenging. I know, frightfully superior aren’t I!
Gideon Rubin’s paintings are largely figure and group scenes, underpinned by an atmosphere of elusive narrative. Personally identifying features are erased or ambiguous inviting the viewer to project our own half forgotten stories onto these near archetypal compositions, ripe with a sense of overlaid history, both pictorially and metaphorically. Therein lies the beauty probably, the realisation of the otherwise inaccessible – the hidden self. This is contemporary painting at its best.
Unlike the work of the infamous Mr Hirst (whose Blue Paintings are already sold to Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk) at a couple of grand a piece Rubin’s paintings aren’t even that expensive. If I had a few quid to spare I know where they’d be going. Oh well, roll on the good times. So whilst I’m still waiting for that to happen I hope it’s not yet too late for me to hear the notoriously ill-mannered Thom Yorke’s nonetheless wise words: “as soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse.”