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New windows into a mischievous mind

Two things seem sure with Damien Hirst: death and taxidermy. His latest works use the wings of thousands of butterflies.

February 18, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

ARE Damien Hirst's new artworks a soaring tribute to the beauty and fragility of one of nature's most delicate living creatures -- or a bunch of dead bugs? According to the 41-year-old British artist, his huge butterfly wing paintings, which are real butterflies on canvas, are perhaps a little of both.

"They're macabre," Hirst observes, sounding not at all displeased. "The beauty of the geometry is more than you expect -- and then you realize that a lot of butterflies died to make it like that. So you are aware of the sort of tragedy."

On a recent afternoon, fresh from a lunchtime shopping spree at Barneys, Hirst is flitting about the white-box interior of Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, preparing for "Superstition," his first solo show in Los Angeles. It opens Thursday concurrently in Beverly Hills and at the Davies Street Gagosian in London.

Leaning against the tall walls of the gallery and visible through the slats of protective wooden crates are what appear to be stained glass church windows -- round rose windows, gothic arches, squares and rectangles. The largest arches stand more than 10 feet high, and the largest rose-window-shaped pieces are about 8 feet in diameter.

Only as the viewer draws closer is the kaleidoscopic colored "glass" revealed to be thousands upon thousands of butterfly wings, all painstakingly attached to the canvases in seemingly endless repeating patterns.

The first word out of Hirst's mouth to describe these attractive configurations is unexpected -- but then this is an artist probably best known for his "Natural History" series: dead animals preserved in tanks of formaldehyde. Among them is "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (1991), a submerged 14-foot tiger shark that sold for $8 million in 2005. The series also includes a sheep ("Away From the Flock") and a cow and a calf sliced in half ("Mother and Child Divided"). "A Thousand Years," also from 1991, involved maggots that fed off the severed head of a cow, then developed into flies that were killed by a bug zapper.

Hirst is also noted for abstract "spin" and "spot" paintings, and in 2006 he opened a show in Mexico titled "The Death of God: Towards a Better Understanding of Life Without God Aboard the Ship of Fools."

Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, recalls a seminal Hirst work included in MOCA's 2001 exhibition "Public Offerings." The early '90s creation "In and Out of Love" was a reflection on mortality. In one room, butterflies hatched from cocoons attached to paintings and then were allowed to fly around the room. After the butterflies died, Hirst attached them to other paintings displayed in another room, along with ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. That project, Schimmel says, cemented Hirst's reputation as one of the most important of the so-called YBAs, for young British artists, noted for the shock value of their art.

"I think many people were disturbed by the fact that he was creating a little science fair, growing butterflies and killing them," Schimmel says.

"In the art world, there are two extremes that are not that far apart: Tough, scatological, disturbing, morose imagery is held in almost as high disrespect as beauty, decorativeness, elegance, spectacle. It is with great consistency that Hirst has played both ends."

Of "In and Out of Love," Hirst says, "I just loved the idea of a kind of living painting, where you had real butterflies coming out of the painting. But people had a fear of them flapping around. It's completely not the reaction I expected, but I like it when I get that kind of reaction.

"I had

someone say to me once: 'I just love butterflies, they're so beautiful; it's a shame they have those hairy bodies in the middle.' "

Hirst, a compact man with close-cropped, graying hair and a whimsical demeanor, is amused that some people see his decision to play with the shapes of church windows as evidence of some sort of religious conversion. He says he was more fascinated by the visual images of the windows than by the specifics of any religion they might represent.

"People shake my hand recently and say: 'Wow -- you've found God,' " Hirst says with a chuckle. "Well, I haven't, really. I would say that I don't believe in God, at the end of the day. With the butterflies, it looks religious, but it's kind of a byproduct, an accident."

His decision to place the brilliant gem-colored wings against a black background in many of the works was inspired not by church windows but by old Victorian tea trays. "They're black, with butterfly wings," he says. "I thought if that was a big painting, it would look really great."

But he adds that he is drawn to religious symbols for another reason: In his opinion, organized religion doesn't seem to be working all that well.

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