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A brush with meaning

The shark in formaldehyde. The memento mori ashtrays. And now, grim oils by proxy. An elusive Damien Hirst circles art's 'truths.'

March 27, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — Damien HIRST is not surprised that people have offered him their bodies to stick in glass cases after they die, like he did with those sheep and rotting cow carcasses and with that shark in formaldehyde that recently sold for $8 million.

"Yeah, sure, I've got a whole cabinet for nut cases. Because I attract quite a lot," he says, " 'cause I make strange art."

But there are limits, clearly -- the art world's shock 'em showman of death is not planning to take any of the nuts up on their offers or display his own body that way, either, after he's gone. Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson may have willed that his ashes be blown from a cannon, but Hirst has no intention of making his own demise part of his act.

"I'd like to get buried in my garden," he says. "In Devon."

That's three hours outside London, along the coast, where he has a 24-acre farm and a 300-year-old converted inn and room for his mum and his two kids, soon to be three. The bad boy of British art turns 40 in three months and already has a large rock picked out, a slab of quartz, that he plans to have set on top of him when he's laid to rest on a placid spot by the house and the sea, a plot with a view, "a great view of everything."


The day before the opening of his New York show, Hirst is still moving stuff around the Gagosian Gallery down in Chelsea, carting an 8-foot-wide painting of his DNA from the room with the giant skulls to the room full of paintings of colorful pills that give us the illusion of a cure, one titled "The Tears of Jesus."

The show itself is titled "The Elusive Truth!" and there is much, indeed, that's elusive, starting with how they can describe it as Hirst's first show ever of paintings when he's been showing paintings for years. OK, those were dot paintings and spin paintings and butterfly paintings -- using real butterflies -- and these are actual oils on canvas. But that brings up another elusive matter, however trivial and lowbrow -- of how much of the paint Hirst lays on himself. He's been saying for years that he can't really draw, in the Michelangelo sense, that he merely has ideas and "sort of just doodles." Now he suggests that he's hardly lifted a brush on any of these paintings that are being sold -- or have already -- for up to $2 million each.

"I tell everyone what to do," is how he explains his role.

He's brought a delegation of 10 from England, six of them artists. Their empty beer bottles from the night before still litter a portable work table in one of the gallery's showrooms. Hirst's brother is curled up against a wall, trying to nap through the sirens from emergency vehicles whizzing up the West Side Highway. One of the women lifts her shirt to show Hirst the scar from her appendix surgery. And another blue-jeaned assistant, Nick Lumb, puts finishing touches on "Suicide Bomb Aftermath (Baghdad)," a 7-foot-tall painting that replicates a news photo of a ghostly old man being carried from wreckage in Iraq. Hirst saw it in the newspaper, tore it out and gave it to his crew to copy on the jumbo canvas.

"That's the wrong color, the yellow," he says, pointing.

"He's the brain! He's the brain!" Lumb says of the boss.

All the paintings in the show began as photographs, some of Hirst's installations -- of a dissection table, for instance -- but many are found images, from newspapers or magazines. The two skulls? That was the widely distributed picture contrasting a normal-sized human skull with the tiny one of a Hobbit-like species, Homo floresiensis, recently discovered on an Indonesian island. Hirst was intrigued by the photo, gave it to his assistants and now the bigger skull looms, in oil, 9 feet tall.

"He's the bloody genius," Lumb says. "I mean, he hasn't got time to do them all himself."

Do people think Rubens painted his murals by himself or that Warhol churned out those silk screens with his own hands? " 'Cause, you know, Frank Lloyd Wright, he actually built his own houses," Hirst quips. "He lays the cement on the brick. He makes the bricks."

"Yeah, exactly," Lumb says. "He's the brains and we're the simple guys who sort of, like, do a few of the brush strokes to start things off."

Hirst's brain and deadpan delivery have been provoking people -- and gaining followers -- from his days as a working-class college lad, when he got other of the "YBAs," Young British Artists, to join the 1988 "Freeze" show he organized in a warehouse at London's Surrey Docks. Others before had put found objects in cases, but he soon was scribbling on a beer coaster how to display an ocean predator and envisioning a decaying cow's head with maggots and flies and an electrified zapper, so the flies bred and perished in a continuing life (and death) cycle.

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