No outside help for Damien Hirst's Veil Paintings series

Damien Hirst's Veil Paintings series - 24 oil works in blood red, electric blue and rich gold - is an homage to the colour harmonies by French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard.
Damien Hirst's Veil Paintings series - 24 oil works in blood red, electric blue and rich gold - is an homage to the colour harmonies by French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES • Damien Hirst is brushing away help from others. After so many years of relying on others, every work in his new series of Veil Paintings - on show at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills - has been done by his hand and his alone, he said.

Twenty-four huge oil works in splashes of blood red, electric blue and rich gold are his homage to the glorious colour harmonies by French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard. Their meaning?

"I make it up after the fact," Hirst, 52, said. "I don't even know what this kind of work is. They make me happy, they feel good to look at, they sort of confuse me."

Maybe the public is too busy trying to pin down one meaning, he mused. Maybe there is none.

"Truth's quite hard to find these days. Art that doesn't contain lies isn't really a great piece of art," he continued. "I don't mind lying, but I don't want to deceive people."

Yet, is that not what he has done time and again since he burst onto the scene in the early 1990s?

Last year, his "rediscovered sunken treasures" in Venice - 189 artworks and artefacts, purported to be the possessions of a second-century collector - netted more than US$330 million (S$432 million), stirring the pot for dissent.

That is why there remains an air of anticipation around this show - his first in the Los Angeles area since 2012 - despite its modest scale.

Hirst said he completed this series in the downtime leading up to the two Venice exhibitions as most of the craft he displayed there was outsourced, giving him time to work in secret on his first love: painting.

With his oeuvre ranging from pointillism to cadavers as sculpture - the infamous shark in formaldehyde, shocking in 1992, was inspired by the film Jaws, he said - much of it was made by an army of helpers.

But help is common, he said, from Michelangelo to the modern day.

"Whether you use lots of assistants or do it on your own," he noted, "as long as the result is what you want, it doesn't matter to me."

It might to collectors. This year's personal touch could bump a value thinned after years of flooding.

Representatives from Gagosian Gallery said the entire series has been sold.

Mr Larry Gagosian, who has represented Hirst for three decades, said he might have underpriced the paintings. "He's never shown work like this, so we agreed on pricing that we thought was correct. They went from half a million dollars for the smallest to US$1.7 million for the larger ones."

This is not quite a new style.

Hirst did similar paintings in the early 1990s, but colour was frowned upon then, the artist recalled, and he "didn't have the courage at the time" to embark on such a large scale so early on.

These paintings were pumped out at his London studio over 12-hour workdays while his carpenters, architects and electricians ensured that Venice remained on schedule.

Hirst said despite his success, he still sees himself as an outsider in what he calls a "stuffy" scene in which people "look their nose down" at him for breaking rules.

Like many powerful men, he retains a deep desire to be accepted by the working-class world he arose from - in his case, a post-war industrial Leeds of poverty and broken homes.

Growing up without money, and then being known for it as much as the work, still stings.

Once known for trouble, he has visibly mellowed. Maybe it is a result of therapy, he mused, which he attends once a week.

"A lot of people, when they meet me, they think I'm OK in the end, 'I like that guy.' I think that surprises people. I have no idea what I do when I meet people for the first time."

Mr Gagosian understands the shift. The truth is that "he's sober, which makes communication a lot more reliable. He's healthy, he's into yoga. He likes to tease people, but there's not a mean bone in him".

He added: "He's endearing, he's always been that way, even when he wasn't sober."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2018, with the headline 'No outside help for Damien Hirst's Veil Paintings series'. Print Edition | Subscribe