As warm weather uncharacteristically descends onto London, the White Cube gallery in Bermonsdey offers a cool alternative to the balmy air settling on the city’s streets. Just beyond the large entrance patio and through the luxuriously minimalist doors are three large rooms, one of which is filled with the works of controversial artist Damien Hirst.
Another Hirst show? Is not the one blockbuster retrospective at the Tate enough? Surely, one artist cannot have a monopoly over one city’s galleries?
Well, there are cases in which hype breeds hype, and judging by the crowds gathered at the exhibition's opening night, this is likely to be one of those cases. Two Weeks One Summer is the tamer relative of Hirst’s Tate show, and it showcases a series of paintings that he began in the summer of 2010. The canvases are physical representations of a medium that Hirst claims to have had a ‘romance’ with all of his life. In conversation with Francesco Bonami in March 2012, Hirst states that he ‘always wanted to be a painter but [he] didn’t believe in it, or believe it was relevant today’. The thirty-six oil paintings on display in the largest room are a challenge to his own conviction. Whether they are any good or not, however, is a different matter.
The canvases intermingle the abstract and the representational. A signature of Hirst’s style, repeating motifs are used in each of the works on show: parrots, the silhouette of a shark’s jaw, a glass of water, spots – each of these motifs draw from his own artistic development. Spots have appeared ad nauseum in the artist’s career, and the glass of water references his early days at art school when he so admired An Oak Tree by Michael Craig Martin. The shark’s jaw is again self-referential, harking to one of his most well-known works The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The parrot, on the other hand, comes simply from Hirst’s own interests: ‘I like parrots. Jokes about parrots are the best’.
Hirst's paintings vibrate between murky impastos and thin, hazy layers of messy lines. The colour scheme throughout the collection is the most striking feature of the exhibition: the midnight hues are a deep exploration of the nuances of darkness. In fact, these paintings are captivating, if nothing else, because they seem to capture a feeling from the artist which is different from his previous works – a feeling of exploration, and not of total certainty. Hirst normally does not allow us to believe that he is unsure of his purpose, but with these paintings, it seems that his uncertainty is in fact his subject.
Seemingly as a supporting act, the 1967-1969 films by Bruce Nauman in the room across the hall from Hirst’s paintings offers an elegant and philosophical discussion on movement. This room could have stood alone as an exhibition, and is endlessly captivating in its treatment of rhythm and the issue of control. The nine films on display each picture the artist in motion, occupying the space of his studio and carrying out performative sequences. In one film, perhaps the most stunning, Nauman is filmed walking very slowly round a perimeter with his hips flung exaggeratedly from side-to-side as he does so. The entire routine is performed with such tension that the viewer is kept watching with heightened expectancy, waiting for the pattern to be broken, as many often are in human activity. His Bouncing Two Balls Between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms is similarly captivating for its treatment of control versus disorder. An added dimension to this work is the notion of the unseen: Nauman often disappears off-camera to catch the bouncing ball. The viewer is again filled with expectation, and anxiety is created through the feeling of unknowingness. Has he caught it? Has he lost it? Will he ever return?
The warm walk to the White Cube in Bermonsdey is certainly worth taking, should anyone be interested in viewing a more contemplative side to Damien Hirst’s oeuvre. The Bruce Nauman portion to the show is a gratifying addition. Just keep the hype at bay, this is one for the peaceful gallery-gazers, and not the shock-art-enthusiasts.