Damien Hirst quoted in: Robert Violette, Ed., I want to spend the rest of my life everywhere, with everyone, one to one, always, forever, now, London 1997, p. 7.
A philosophical rumination on death under the clinical gaze of science is the central theme behind Hirst’s practice. In the 1990s the artist rose to notoriety for employing animal carcasses in his Natural History series in which Hirst boldly submerged sheep, cows, sharks, and pigs in formaldehyde, often bisecting the carcasses, and encased his specimens in minimalistic glass vitrines. Delivering a form of suspended animation these pieces communicate a paradoxical attempt to simultaneously resist and embrace life’s physical ephemerality. This key emotional conflict between the knowledge of death’s inevitability and the desire for immortality also lies at the heart of the artist’s magnificent Butterfly paintings.
Hirst first showed the nascent works in this iconic corpus as part of the important early exhibition In & Out of Love (1991). Presented in an ex-travel agent’s office on Woodstock Street in London, only a year after he had graduated from Goldsmiths, the installation consisted of two defined areas presented across two floors. Upstairs the space was transformed into a butterfly nursery; Hirst adhered butterfly pupae to the surface of white monochrome canvases from which the insects hatched. Downstairs the artist presented a room of colourful monochrome canvases populated by the lifeless bodies of these delicate creatures. The resulting juxtaposition between life and death imparted a powerful metaphor for humankind’s own temporal existence and life cycle.
Hirst continued to employ the butterfly as his medium within the rigidly geometrical and kaleidoscopic Butterfly Grid paintings, a series to which the present work belongs that was inspired by his mother’s antique butterfly tea tray. Such decorative trays become popular at the turn of the Twentieth Century and are well known for their exquisitely patterned surfaces of inlaid butterfly wings. Building on his corpus of monochrome canvases upon which butterflies appear randomly trapped in sticky gloss paint, Hirst created his first Butterfly Grid painting in 2001 in homage to these decorative antiques. As exemplified by the present work however, these wonderfully symmetrical and complex tessellations are not only nostalgic, they also recall the intricate detail of ecclesiastical stained glass windows. Indeed, as in the history of Christian art, worldly beauty is underlined by the bitter reminder of life’s entropic temporality. Possessing a title associated with the all-seeing power of God, Omniscience foreshadows the cathedral-esque works within this kaleidoscopic corpus and magnificently delivers a wonderful summation of this aesthetically seductive yet philosophically deathly body of work.
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