"Art doesn't purport to have all the answers; the drug companies do. Hence the title of the series, The Pharmaceutical Paintings, and the individual titles of the paintings themselves... Art is like medicine, it can heal."
Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 246.
Poetically variegated across a colossal expanse of individual chromatic circles, the cellular kaleidoscopic field of Chloroacetic Acid essays a monumental and immaculate exhibition of Damien Hirst's iconic corpus of Spot Paintings. Monumentally suspended in twenty-four rows and twenty-seven columns, each of the individual six-hundred and forty eight colour roundels are carefully distinct in hue, and yet together the household gloss-paint discs span the entire chromatic spectrum; indeed, this work stands among the very largest of Hirst's early production. Executed in 1997, just as Hirst began to assume an international reputation, and belonging to the defining body of work that first brought Hirst notary acclaim, this painting represents the sublimation of a practice heralded by the legendary self-curated exhibition Freeze in 1988 and brought to an apogee with Hirst's first- ever UK museum retrospective currently on show at Tate Modern. Executed shortly following the very incipient Pharmaceutical Paintings, Chloroacetic Acid exquisitely bespeaks an entirely unique lyricism underscored by the palliative comfort provided by scientific medical advancements.
Identified by Hirst as the defining belief-system of our contemporary age, science occupies a position of authority to rival that of religion. By infusing art with the clinical sterility and semiotic reassurance of pharmaceutical products, Hirst substitutes the role of religion as reassurance against death and the afterlife with the empirically confident aesthetic and clinical placation of pharmacology. First conceived alongside the Medicine Cabinets in the early 1990s, Hirst's Spot Paintings are imbued with the same measured rational order and pleasing formal cogency of his Pharmacy store vitrines. "I started them as an endless series", explains Hirst, "a scientific approach to painting in a similar way to the drug companies' scientific approach to life. Art doesn't purport to have all the answers; the drug companies do. Hence the title of the series, The Pharmaceutical Paintings, and the individual titles of the paintings themselves... Art is like medicine, it can heal." (Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 246). By scrutinising yet adopting this iconography Hirst restores to art the miraculous function it once provided. Sterile, medicinal and forensic, Hirst's spot paintings are a modern day devotional paean to the life-giving promise of modern science: the spot paintings posit the spectator as unwitting participant in Humanity's global paranoia of death.
The all-pervading presence of death is the Hirstian trope par excellence. Cryptically hidden beneath the immaculate surface of Chloroacetic Acid lies a deathly undertone familiar to the Pharmaceutical Paintings. In the early 1990s, Hirst started naming these paintings alphabetically after the exotic sounding substances listed in the Sigma Chemical Company's catalogue Biochemical Organic Compounds for Research and Diagnostic Reagents. By 1997, Hirst had reached 'C': Chloroacetic Acid is a mass produced chemical agent harnessed for the creation of, among other applications, pharmaceutical products. A useful building block in organic synthesis, this compound, though purporting life-giving properties in its medicinal application is also a highly toxic substance. Dermal exposure to the acid will swiftly penetrate the skin, and can be fatal. Thus the deathly yet life-giving traits of Chloroacetic Acid mirrors the quintessential précis of Hirst's eponymous painting: behind compelling aesthetic appeal and comforting geometric order lies hidden the inevitability of mortality.
Drugs have become the ubiquitous modifier of Nature: the remit of human existence is continually conditioned by the powers of modern science, from pre-birth sedatives dealt through the placenta, to near-death stimulants fed through an intravenous drip. When these works were first produced, the critic Jerry Saltz commented: "The names of these drugs conjure a vision of human misery and dread. With every drug comes a reference to a particular sickness, along with a list of side effects...These drugs form an analogue for the mysteries of the human body and its vast hermetic complexity" (Jerry Saltz, Art in America, June 1995, cited in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, Op. Cit., p. 173). Disseminated via a simple schema of geometric logic, the controlled emotionless self-restriction of Hirst's candy coloured grid belies an unsettling and fractured viewing experience: "If you look closely at any one of these paintings a strange thing happens; because of the lack of repeated colours there is no harmony... in every painting there is a subliminal sense of unease; yet the colours project so much joy it's hard to feel it, but it's there. The horror underlying everything. The horror that can overwhelm everything at any moment." (the artist in: Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, Op. Cit., p. 246).
Hirst's complex dialectic founded in themes of death and challenging faith structures, is ultimately revealed through the cheerful simplicity of colour: "I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz. I hate taste - it's acquired" (Damien Hirst, Ibid, p. 246). His aim is to motivate an audience to think about the terms of their existence, to ontologically expose and undermine the avoidance of death by fully and poetically acknowledging its omnipotent pervasion. As monumentally redolent within ambiguous yet poetic allure of Chloroacetic Acid, Hirst's pre-eminent canon supremely embodies the 21st Century Danse Macabre.
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