London in the year 2012 may mean the Olympics for many, but it’s also shaping up to be the summer of Damien Hirst. This is pleasing some, while angering others. While his massive retrospective at the Tate rumbles on and Other Critera showcases prints of his work, the White Cube - arguably at the more immediate, contemporary, commercial sharp-end - last night opened a show of paintings by the artist.
Two Weeks One Summer comprises 35 paintings, loaded with symbolism and not-so-subtle self-referential motifs, marked with visible, deep brush stokes, which the artist has been working on since the summer of 2010. In addition to the oil on canvases is one sculpture: two balls, one black, one white, that defy gravity as they hang in the air, supported by an upward-facing fan. The piece is called The Battle Between Good and Evil, and an explanation is given by way of the exhibition literature, which quotes Hirst’s recent interview with Michael Craig-Martin: “The void of painting is always a difficult thing. It’s infinite really. There’s no gravity in painting, so it’s even more infinite than space.”
Spring blossom and flowers appear to be the starting point of the painted works but birds also feature heavily in all of the paintings - parrots predominately, and several depictions of magpies. Among them are references to Hirst’s other work. Butterflies and the hazy depiction of the gaping mouth of a shark appear in the new paintings abstractly like spectres of some of his most iconic works – The Souls (2010), In And Out of Love (2012), and The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).
This year also saw the launch of Hirst’s new website, where a camera live streams workers creating ‘Hirsts’. With this new body of work so clearly marked with deliberate brush stokes, it might prove impossible for a cynic to wonder whether it's all meant as a temper to the sterile, hands-off approach of Hirst’s other work, as we know, often made in his studio by technicians in a “collaborative studio processes”.
Now in his 40s, having craved out a blindingly successful career, why has Hirst embarked on expressive painting at such a rate? “I’ve had a romance with painting all my life, even if I avoided it,” he says in the text for the White Cube show.
“As a young artist you react to your situation. In the 1980s painting wasn’t really the way to go. I always wanted to be a painter but I didn’t believe in it, or believe it was relevant today. I hid from this urgency, or even denied it. I felt I needed something stronger to break down the door of the art world at a time when painting wasn’t strong enough.” The show continues at White Cube Bermondsey until July 8.