Throughout his career to date, Damien Hirst has continually challenged the boundaries of conventional painting and sculpture, utilising a wide range of innovative media to create works which defy traditional aesthetic categorisation. The animal world has acted as a constant source of stimuli to the artist: as well as preserving the corporeal bodies of farm animals within formaldehyde, Hirst has employed butterflies, flies and other types of insects as an alternative to orthodox painting. The use of animal matter – once-living material which is captured and preserved eternally through Hirst’s actions – allows the artist to explore the dichotomy between life and death as well as the endlessly renewing cycle of life, a subject which has always been one of Hirst’s primary concerns. Affliction is a highly significant and impressive example of Hirst’s fly paintings: the texture and subject of the work reward and encourage further contemplation.
The darkness of the fly paintings effectively acts as a counterpart to the brightly coloured butterfly paintings, as Hirst has recalled: “When I get too dark I always try to lighten it a bit so if I try doing a fly painting and it is… really black and it is covered in flies… I come to think: Hang on a minute, it is getting too dark let’s do a butterfly painting with some blues and brights and pinks and bright colours. I want to do that on the other side and try to take the edge of it…” (Damien Hirst in conversation with Christian Gether in: Exh. Cat., Copenhagen, ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Damien Hirst, 2009, p. 36). Despite the contrast between these two seemingly opposed facets of Hirst’s artistic production, there is arguably a greater sense of profundity attendant upon the production of the fly paintings than their butterfly counterparts. The velvety blackness produced by the thickly encrusted gathering of flies, carefully encased in resin, represents shape and colour reduced to their purest form, whilst representing the fragility of life in the natural world.
In its lack of adornment or pattern, Affliction perpetuates the investigation into the minimalist potentials of the monochrome initiated by Kasimir Malevich at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and continued by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt decades later. Annushka Shani argues that: “The fly painting is Hirst’s black monochrome, recalling other black modernist paintings, and, in spirit, Ad Reinhardt’s black monochromes with their barely registering cruciform division. Unlike any of these other works, the black of Hirst’s paintings is built up out of hundreds of thousands of dead flies, which create a dense and unfathomable surface, like an absorbent void – a dateless night” (Exh. Cat., London, White Cube, Damien Hirst, Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, 2003, p. 10). Within Affliction, Hirst creates a powerful visual record of the cycle of life itself, suggesting the hope of renewal even amidst decay.
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