There is something incorrigibly smug about the concept behind Damien Hirst’s The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, in which his trademark prints of multi-coloured dots are being shown across each of Gagosian Gallery’s eleven global locations, and something smugger still about his decision to award a ‘personalised print’ to the first person to see them all.
Essentially it’s an absurdly rich artist offering a prize to anyone absurdly rich enough to travel across an absurd global route to see his work. Woe betide any Hirst fans of modest means. Even by the standards of a man who sold a diamond-encrusted skull for £50m, it’s an ostentatious way to put on an art show.
The suspicion pervades that there may be an alternative motive behind the idea besides simply showing off his wealth and power. Perhaps Hirst knows, deep down, that his beloved spots simply aren’t interesting enough on their own, that they need a publicity stunt to get anyone interested.
But I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen them for myself. Let no work of art - even a Damien Hirst - be judged solely on a photograph on a screen. The proof, as it were, is in the spotted dick.
The launch of Spot Prints at London’s tiny Other Criteria is a precursor to the grand global event, and pulls in twelve or so of the Spot series. The press invite, somewhat worryingly, alluded to ‘a new range of products including a Spot Tea Towel, Mug and a Spot Coin Purse’, but these were kept mercifully off show. Instead my friend and I squeezed into the narrow white room and clambered through the crowds until we were finally confronting the artwork that Hirst himself has described as looking like ‘Skittles’.
And here are some of things they made us talk about:
Staring at the patterns of the dots sent the obsessive compulsive sides to our brains – more prominent in this critic than most – into overdrive. The human tendency to try and establish patterns in chaos had us almost subconsciously counting colours and drawing mental shapes to try and discern some conformity to how they’d been composed. It made me recall a vivid memory of being a listless child, staring down at my Grandmother’s intricate living room carpet as the adults spoke about boring things.
It would be impossible though, my accomplice argued, for the human brain to produce anything truly ‘random’ in the scientific sense of the word. No matter how hard Hirst (or whichever assistant produced the piece) tried, he would be following patterns laid out somewhere in his subconscious. The Spot Paintings made me ponder the extent to which humans are truly capable of creating random chaos.
Hirst has claimed the spot paintings have a ‘underlying anxiety’ about them. With the brighter versions, we tended to agree. Generally, human beings seek to smooth colours and shades into compliance with one another. We dress, decorate, design our worlds to ‘match’. Spending a long time, therefore, looking at wildly varying colours is curiously unsettling. It then made me wonder if a child wouldn't feel the exact opposite way.
One feature of the spot paintings – some of them at least – is to abruptly stop in one corner, thus disrupting the symmetry of the rectangle, or for a row of half-circles to suddenly appear at one end. In isolation this perhaps wouldn't say much, but viewed as one part of a collection, the ‘imperfections’ became more interesting. Working through them and seeming the same basic idea probed and teased out differently make them more enjoyable.
So all in all then, Hirst’s Spot Paintings made us think and feel things we found it interesting to think and feel: the only truly incorruptible measure of artistic merit. We went to judge Hirst’s work on the very terms it so often stubbornly resists – not as a concept or a brand or a part of the artist’s enigma but as a painting on a wall asking us for a emotional response.
And they stand up rather well, do the spots, depending on your tastes. They’re fun and engaging and have surprising degree of depth. And they go well together. Breezing through a few hundred of them in one go, taking them in as a series, you’d have quite the time. It’s just a shame that to do so, you’d have to have more in common with Hirst the celebrity than Hirst the artist.
Spot Prints will run at Other Criteria from 10 January - 14 February 2012.