Opening: Damien Hirst’s ‘Emergency Paintings, Danger Paintings, Hazard Pictures and Seizures’ at Gagosian London

DAMIEN HIRST Safety, 2015 Acrylic and acrylic lacquer on canvas
96 x 84 in, 243.8 x 213.4 cm© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021 Courtesy Gagosian

Damien Hirst was never shy about conceptualization, was he? But in 2021 he has surely outdone himself, with his current year-long takeover of Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery in London (that’s right, a whole year). It was launched this past April with Fact Paintings and Fact Sculptures, which was obviously still prior to the vaccination programs having shown any real sign of at least partially rescuing us from this deadly and still ongoing pandemic.

It was followed in June by his Relics and Fly Paintings. And now the third installation comes with the cheekily sprawling title Emergency Paintings, Danger Paintings, Hazard Pictures and Seizures. It collects Hirst’s paintings, photos and sculptures around the themes of danger, crime, rescue and death (though we admit were not sure what order those topics are best arranged into.) The aesthetics are meant to refer back to the intensity of the coloring of emergency vehicles, and even the skins of threatening animals, whilst also drawing on media images of police activity. Of course, when Warhol depicted car crashes from the newspapers, it was a commentary on media sensationalism; but Hirst once again seems to be merely reporting on the degree to which existence is rife with the potential dangers that stalk us through our everyday activities.

The Emergency Paintings (2014–16) series, specifically, seems to distill elements of Suprematism, Rothko and quotidian warning signs – which Hirst actually photographed with his phone – into something deceptively portentous. Safety (2015), for instance, seems to be about anything but.

DAMIEN HIRST Extinguish, 2015 Acrylic and acrylic lacquer on canvas 96 x 84 in
243.8 x 213.4 cm© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021 Courtesy Gagosian

“They aren’t careful or considered,” he explains. “They are quick and easy snaps taken as the world was flying by, and all the better for it.”

The Danger Paintings are actually close ups of the skins of animals that we should all know better than to provoke. Yet Hirst still wants us to be further aware of the messages being conveyed via that skin, as the creatures survey all that moves in and out of their sensorial range. He astutely observes that it’s, “a thing that nature does that’s similar to what we do on emergency vehicles. We stole the idea from nature, and hid it in geometry.” Curiously, it’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 humans are killed by snakes every year – a small fraction of the fatality count of the global pandemic that still hangs over our daily reality.

But as an artist who incessantly seems to speak so incisively to the conditions of our times, he strikes a zeitgeist bullseye with the Seizures (2021) series, a reworking of photographs of, yes, actual police drug seizures. Few have substantively discussed it, but in this time of COVID, vaccines have arguably become the new “drug war,” one in which the act of not taking a drug can very much get you killed. By design or by accident, he seems to have connected those dots.

Damien Hirst has always had a particularly brilliant talent for hiding the ominous just below the surface of the visually engaging – while also conveying something trenchant about the modern condition. So it’s safe to say that if he is offering us a warning of any kind, probably best to heed it.

Emergency Paintings, Danger Paintings, Hazard Pictures and Seizures opens today, October 5, at Gagosian Britannia Street, London.

DAMIEN HIRST Urgent, 2015 Flexible crystal grade micro prismatic vinyl on canvas 48 in
121.9 cm© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021 Courtesy Gagosian

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