Click on the image below (“Incorruptible Crown” from Butterfly Paintings) to open Damien Hirst’s exhibit in a resizable browser.

Review by Heather Smith

Damien Hirst is known as an artist who innovatively confronts the boundaries between art, popular culture, and science. His evocative, large-scale pieces tend to leave audiences visually arrested and viscerally disconcerted. And his work reflects images of vulnerability and beauty as a means of ironically and realistically portraying our emotional investments in the ideas of life and death.

Hirst’s work exposes the oddity of life and the mockery of death through satire, brutishness, and surprising sensitivity. He playfully and tragically blends classical themes and current cultural and existential phenomena to communicate the strangeness of life and death, and not only their peculiarities, but also our coping mechanisms that either numb life or superficially exalt death. This is through our morality and religion, our medicinal treatment, and our vulnerability, all of which are examined throughout Hirst’s work.

In Butterfly Paintings, his tableaux of butterfly pieces, Hirst manipulates thousands of actual butterflies affixed by paint in a particular mandala pattern. This literal and symbolic representation of the universe is an example of Hirst blurring the boundaries in art. In Hirst’s famous piece, Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, a steer is tied to a post inside a vitrine filled with formaldehyde; the steer is pierced by several arrows. MCA Denver, the museum currently exhibiting Hirst’s work, explains that:

This brutal yet noble interpretation of the saint’s martyrdom reflects Hirst’s concern with the Western tradition of Christian iconography, as well as his interest in the inevitability of death and decay through failures in science and medicine.

The pieces in this exhibit blur the lines between real and representational. Consequently, the viewer can be shockingly caught in a space between the gruesome realities they see in the art and the cognizance of their own contextual settings (i.e., the art museum—or in our cases, the comfort of our homes, offices, or neighborhood coffee shops—not the science museum). Hirst utilizes the frame of reference to reinforce his commentary on death, decay, and our vital coping mechanisms.

Furthermore, Hirst seems concerned with revealing how vulnerability allows us to behold beauty, regardless of whether it is grim or transcendent, and then exposes our shallow comprehension of life and death.

But do these images resonate? Will we allow ourselves the vulnerability to interact with the disturbing realities of life and death and how we have dealt with these realities? Hirst’s work subtly mocks the viewer who sheepishly shies away. Contemplating these pieces requires the strength to glimpse into the vitrine as Hirst objectifies the saintly steer; it requires openness to feel the butterflies suspended in paint; and it requires a sense of confrontation as he unearths the ways in which we have defied and forgotten that death is close behind.

Click here to open Damien Hirst’s exhibit in a resizable browser.

These works are displayed with permission from Damien Hirst and the Goss-Michael Foundation. Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, from the Natural History series; two paintings from Butterfly Paintings; and Nothing Is A Problem For Me, a photograph, are on display at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art from September 23, 2008, to August 30, 2009.