Rules and Exceptions
Damien Hirst, Where the Land Meets the Sea, HENI Publishing, 2023
David Campany’s essay ‘Rules and Exceptions’ appears in Where the Land Meets the Sea by Damien Hirst, HENI Publishing, 2023
Dimensions: 360 × 290 mm
Extent: 204 pp
A vibrant catalogue of Damien Hirst’s Where the Land Meets the Sea, featuring over 200 artworks and texts by David Campany and James Cahill
Where the Land Meets the Sea is a large-format hardback catalogue, published to coincide with Damien Hirst’s latest release of paintings and an exhibition at Phillips gallery on Berkeley Street, London.
The collection comprises of three new series of oil paintings – Coast Paintings, Sea Paintings and Seascapes – that have never been exhibited before. To coincide with an application-based release of the artworks on HENI Primary, Hirst’s exhibition at Phillips will run from 20 July to 18 August 2023, presented by HENI with the support of the artist’s galleries Gagosian and White Cube, and is accompanied by this exhibition catalogue.
The catalogue features over 200 full-colour reproductions of the artworks on show at Phillips, accompanied by texts from British writer David Campany and American art historian James Cahill.
‘Rules and Exceptions’
By David Campany
Francis Bacon, Jet of Water, 1979. Oil and dry transfer lettering on canvas, 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm)
Francis Bacon, Jet of Water, 1988. Oil on canvas, 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm)
In 1979, Francis Bacon produced a painting titled Jet of Water. The space it depicts, rendered in black and pink with a blue sky above and dirt-brown ground, appears to be a tight and unloved backyard, of sorts. What look like pipes and water tanks surround a vacant central area into which, from a nozzle or faucet, erupts liquid. The ground is not yet wet, so the event appears to have just occurred. As with all Bacon’s works, it is a combination of cool order and urgent, near-formless chaos. Nine years later, in 1988, he produced a second Jet of Water. From the paintings themselves we cannot know for sure why he returned to the theme. It is possible he was unsatisfied with his first version, but it is also possible he wanted to rework some of its success. Or, it could be that he liked the idea of two paintings of the same subject co-existing. Not exactly a diptych, nor a series, but simply two. And of course, no two jets of water can ever be the same.
Bacon’s second version does feel more successful, if by that we mean it comes closer to his frequently stated wish for art to achieve ‘sensation without the boredom of its conveyance’. It certainly is more visceral and immediate, less bogged down in the painterly struggle. He achieved this by making a greater separation between the way the space was painted – crisper, cleaner and more precisely geometric than before – and the jet itself, which feels more like raw spatters and dynamic flicks of paint that are much less fussed over, or brushed around. No boredom of conveyance here. The second attempt also makes it much easier for a viewer to enter into the pleasurable adventure of thinking about Bacon’s manner of depiction, which so often combined precision and something more impressionistic, or expressionistic. There is a clear line backwards from Bacon, via Bonnard, Seurat, and the Pointillists, to Chardin and Velázquez, masters who could switch easily between rendering an eye or a jewel in the finest detail, and virtuoso flicks of paint to convey the impression of fur, hair, or a flaring highlight.
I begin with Francis Bacon not simply because Damien Hirst has been such an outspoken admirer of his work, nor because Hirst surely knows Bacon’s jets of water. What seems more pertinent, and more complex, is how in the work of both artists the interplay between the precise and the impressionistic are informed so profoundly by photography’s colonisation of vision and our expectations of how things should look. Famously, Bacon regularly worked from photographic images, giving him access to things he could not see otherwise. Hirst’s Seascapes and Sea Paintings derive from low-grade photographic images found online.
The two artists also share that anxiety about the ‘boredom of conveyance’. Whatever the complexity of their art, they seek something immediate – a sudden impact, a flash of recognition. The brute fact of the raw photographic document, and the way it can seem to assault the senses so directly, bypassing the fuss of mediation, structures much of their work. Whatever Hirst’s medium, the tough immediacy commonly associated with photography is often the guiding principle. His sculptural works aspire to first hit the viewer with what Marcel Duchamp, in describing his hopes for the viewer’s encounter with his readymades, once called ‘this snapshot effect’. Brute and factual. Whatever follows will tremble in the aftershock of that initial visual/mental arrest. It is worth recalling that the first photographic image to enter Hirst’s oeuvre was a grainy black and white snap of him grinning with existential exhilaration next to a severed head in a morgue (With Dead Head). That was 1991, the same year he made The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the tiger shark preserved in a display case of formaldehyde, which seemed to have its widest impact as photographic images in the mass media and art press. And yet, despite the role played by the camera in mediating his work, Hirst has been rather circumspect about engaging with it in any direct way.
The standard account of photography’s arrival in the 1830s is that it introduced into the realm of pictures a level of detail beyond any will or intention, which in turn freed painting of the burden of representation. It’s an oddly unconvincing account, not least because representation can be far from a burden. It was not as if depictive painting disappeared, although its relation to realism certainly did expand, moving both towards the photographic and away from it. On a technical level the development of photography pushed relentlessly towards detail: more precise lenses, finer-grained film and paper, higher resolution in digital capture, and so on. There was also a countervailing pragmatism, leading to cameras in smaller formats that are merely good enough and cheap enough, producing either sufficient or poor-quality images. On top of this, photography’s drive towards detail was confronted head-on with the idea that technical ‘failures’ such as motion blur, missed focus, lack of definition, and the breaking up of the image into grain or pixels need not be failures at all, since they have their own profound aesthetic charge. Photography, like painting, has its ways of being both precisionist and impressionist. Fine detail and vagueness. The breaking-up of the photographic image, its dissolution into abstraction is always present, threatening to disrupt its smooth illusion and promise of infinite plenitude.
All of these ideas come together in the depiction of liquid, a theme which has long fascinated painters and photographers. Paint is liquid, at least at the beginning, so it has a deep kinship with liquid motifs – droplets of dew, glasses of water, spillages, crashing waves. Photography has been bathed in chemicals for most of its life. The camera’s metallurgy and optics require large volumes of water. The developing and fixing of the image on film and paper are also thoroughly wet matters. And while liquid must be kept at a distance from the dry industrial equipment, it is a deeply photogenic subject. In photography’s early decades, the flow of liquid eluded capture, leaving blurry traces or disappearing entirely in long exposures. Eventually, fast shutter speeds could arrest it but in doing so they transformed it into something the eye could never witness. We have all seen countless still images of liquid on the move, enough to make us think that what they show is what we see with our own eyes, but it is not. This relay between what we can see for ourselves, what we can see depicted, and how depictions lead to visual expectations is what makes liquid such a compelling theme, both for painters and photographers. It is also the source of the tension between the precise and the expressionist.
Of course, any splatter of paint is bound to summon the living ghosts of Abstract Expressionism and action painting more broadly; and in doing so, the canvas becomes the charged surface for receiving gestural marks. The artwork is the sum total of the actions it has accrued. We could say the same of the camera’s light sensitive surface which receives and fixes the world’s dynamics. As the artist Jeff Wall once put it in describing the energy of street photography, ‘Every picture-constructing advantage accumulated over centuries is given up to the jittery flow of events as they unfold.’ It is a phrase that could apply just as well to action painting.
In his fascination with photography, Bacon would have understood this giving up of every picture-constructing advantage, although he probably would not have accepted it. Photography certainly gave rise to the possibility of new kinds of pictures, constructed in new ways, but in the history of depiction, no matter what the changes in medium, there is always as much continuity as rupture. Modernism emphasised the ruptures, but Bacon was and was not a part of that. He made art like no one else, but it is clear how he absorbed so many pictorial ideas from the past. Much the same is true of Hirst, an artist with a distinct sensibility that has emerged from a hunger to assimilate the particular ways the art of the past has left its marks upon him. Of course, the tail end of modernism decided to call this kind of assimilation ‘postmodern’, but it missed the point. Art making always has lineage and continuity.
Let us say painting really belongs to art only, and that it has little currency anywhere else. And let us say that while photography can belong to art, it also belongs everywhere else: the sciences, journalism, design, family albums, fashion, police departments and passports. As a result, whatever photography does in art is in some kind of dialogue with what everywhere else does with it. This is a blessing and a curse. In those anxious decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which photography hungered for the condition of art, the medium’s ever-expanding worldliness was seen as a curse. Photography’s ticket to art was understood to be its kinship with painting, traditionally defined. Meanwhile, many painters were making more or less clandestine use of photographs as visual aids. Then, somewhere around 1918, in the post-war questioning of everything, and in a culture of art consumed increasingly as photographic reproduction in books and magazines, things changed. The art of photography took up explicit dialogue with the common non-art document (snapshots, reportage) and common things (daily life and its ephemera). At the same time, some painters became more accepting and honest about the way photography was reshaping vision and picture making. In doing so they reconnected painting with common culture, without quite having to sacrifice its special status outside of it. This was the in/out scandal that was eventually crystallized by Pop Art and the various strands of photorealist painting that began to emerge around 1961.
Today there is nothing remotely scandalous about painting’s co-option of photographic sources. The practice now has its own history, sub-genres, and mannerisms. Meanwhile the convergence of imaging technologies blurs some of the older distinctions between painting and photography, but without ever quite letting go of the promise of the camera. The post-medium idea that all is now just ‘picture making’ remains an idea, albeit a powerful one.
So, is what we have now a situation in which there is no scandal but a persistent tension whereby painting and photography threaten to collapse into each other – as mediums, as expectations – only to dramatize some of their differences? I think so, although there is plenty of ‘wiggle room’ here. There are those among us with a legitimate interest in mediums and their conditions, and those who do not, since both painting and photography are at once specialisms and generalisms.
Damien Hirst’s Seascapes and Sea Paintings are in this wiggle room. They might summon the long traditions in painting and photography of depicting these subjects. They might summon old but not yet dead ideas about mediums. They might restate and twist those persistent tensions between high and low culture; between the avant-garde and the kitsch; between the worthless and the priceless; between ephemeral images and embodied objects; between abstraction and figuration; between art and non-art; between the hand and the machine. They might not. Or rather, might it be that the tension is now between whether those tensions still matter and whether they don’t? Do we want to think that we are so far past all those matters? Or do we have an inkling that we might not be?
I am writing this having never seen these paintings by Hirst, only photographic reproductions of them. This has been deliberate on my part, an experiment, for it is quite possible that you, holding this book, have not seen them either. It is quite possible you have never seen Bacon’s two paintings of jets of water. But consider this: When we see what we think is a photograph reproduced on the page of a book we do not wonder where the real photograph is. Photography occupies whatever place and form it is given. When we see what we think is a painting reproduced on a page, we know, or sense, there is a real thing that is elsewhere. A painter doesn’t paint their painting and then decide after the fact what size it will be and what materials it will be made from. Those decisions are sovereign to the making. In photography there is image capture and there is output, and a thousand different outputs, at different scales with different materials, are possible. I’m generalizing, of course. There are plenty of interesting exceptions. But exceptions are exceptions because they prove the rule, and maybe this is where we are now, wondering whether there are even rules that generate exceptions.