joanne tod
Rembrandt in New York, by Joanne Tod, 1999. Image from Tod's pages on the CCCA website.

damien hirst hospital
Hospital, by Damien Hirst, 2004. Image from David Cohen's review at

I saw work from Damien Hirst's painting show (see previous post) projected at a recent symposium. They instantly reminded me of the Canadian painter, Joanne Tod. I've been a big fan of her work since I first saw it in art school, back in the 80s. She has making smart, self conscious ugly/beautiful paintings for a long time. From Tom and Joester's respsonses I get the impression that Hirst's paintings are uglier than Tod's. Tod frequently paints scenes of opulence, and the paint handling itself teeters between lush and downright scratchy. How to position this painting? Is it is a cynical statement about the empty gesture of the "artists hand"? Is it a jab at acquistion and commodity? Or is it simply a grab for those collector dollars? In 2002 Tod put on a show called Vanity Fair, in which she rendered portratis of a bunch of Toronto's big-fish-small-pond personalities as characters from the novel. Shinan Giovanni (then gossip columnist for the National Post) wrote in Lola magazine: "...when Tod confessed that I was to be one of the subjects in her show, I was instantly flattered and made to blush. This, you see, is the power of the portrait artist: the subjects always think they're being made love when, in fact, sometimes they're just being screwed."

The same goes for the art audience when confronted with slick, smart, po-mo painting. Are we being screwed? If we are, maybe we like it? It's odd that Damien Hirst has chosen to replay this dynamic in paint, where the epitomes of market cynicism and self-reference have been visited and revisited thoroughly over the past 20 years. In this context, I understand Kimmelman's "moral scold" (as Tom called it in yesterday's comment thread). Granted, Hirst's subject matter speaks to a contemporary level of desperate detachment. But besides offering a historyical study of postmodernism-in-paint, what could Hirst be possibly saying with this treatment other than, simply, "buy this painting"?

On the other hand, maybe it is possible that ironic reference can fold so many times as to compact itself back into sincerity. If there is a contemporary youthful art market really interested in "earnestness, or at least the appearance of it" as Kimmelman suggests, and Hirst can deliver, then what's the problem? Are you "shallow and money-obessed" if you enjoy a painterly painting of a dissected brain, or a morgue, or a bleeding soccer hooligan? Or are you just a reader of magazines, watcher of television shows, disempowered and subjugated protestor of wars, believer that church and state should remain separated, post-AI-proto-cyborgian internet user, in understandably depressed and yet participating member of contemporary western culture?

- sally mckay 5-02-2005 6:58 pm

Nice try, but they weren't painterly paintings. They had wiener symptoms (where every brush stroke looks like a wiener) and were really ugly to look at up close. Not ugly in a good way, ugly in a rushed "oh my god I have to paint 12 of these by wednesday" way.
- joester 5-02-2005 9:37 pm

Concur. Major wiener symptoms.
- tom moody 5-02-2005 9:46 pm

I'm chuckling over the possibility of ironic references folding themselves back into sincerity. (transforming themselves into a big fat origami crane ...or ...a ...butterfly)

You are too damn generous, Sal. (but I admire the conjecture anyway)
- L.M. 5-02-2005 10:30 pm

Well I have to believe you guys that the paintings sucked. Funny how photorealism looks good when you photograph it! (actually it doesn't sound like these really do qualify as photorealism, despite what Science Photo Library has to say.
- sally mckay 5-02-2005 11:25 pm

I think irony can be quite sincere, sometimes.
- Jatsimpleposie (guest) 5-02-2005 11:25 pm

I have always liked Damien Hirst, ever since the blood-filled teddy bear days (I really really liked the fake rotting cow-head with flies and the doctor's office full of fish). but when I suggest that his irony might have folded into sincerity, I don't mean that he's painting from his (or his assisstants') heart, or that he's truly expressing himself on canvas or some such gobbeldy gook. I just mean that as David Salle and his ilk fade into the depths of time (thank goodness) a sad empty cold and bleak image can maybe be just that, without us all being required to smirk knowingly at the arch nods to emptiness and sadness and coldness and bleakness. Am I mad? Used to be political (ironic) to highlight the fact that art is commodity. Nowadays, freakin everything is commodity - it's a default, not a point of interest. So why would he mass-produce a bunch of bleak (bad) paintings? Maybe he's just an idiot. It's possible.

- sally mckay 5-02-2005 11:48 pm

To jatsimpleposie, I'd agree that when speaking any truth is impossible, irony is necessary.

To Sal, I'm curious as to why he would produce those paintings too. (As for expressing himself on canvas, I suspect he is overly conscious of his position in the public eye, so I question the off handedness in the production.)
- L.M. 5-03-2005 12:03 am

or do you mean "hands offedness"?
- sally mckay 5-03-2005 12:51 am

- L.M. 5-03-2005 1:05 am

Yes, both indeed. Why, in this day and age, get minions to make paintings? And why get them to do shoddy, rushed paintings?
- sally mckay 5-03-2005 3:12 am

Considering what they sold for, he could have hired Gerhard Richter. (is he for sale? don't know if I have the cash for him.)
- L.M. 5-03-2005 4:48 am

Hmmm...fine artist for hire. This reminds me a weird summer job I had one time. A guy hired me to work with him painting skies with white puffy clouds and cherubs on rich people's ceilings. My first day on the job he just stuck me on a ladder with a palette and a brush and said, "start painting." there was nothing to reference or anything work from. I was paralysed! Some people might've been okay in that situation, but I just wasn't capable of inventing chiascuro cherubs out of thin air. I just kept mushing shades of blue around until it was time to go home. The guy never called me for any other gigs.
- sally mckay 5-03-2005 10:17 pm

Tom Moody nicely taps in the nails on the lid of this discussion's coffin, over on his blog.
- sally mckay 5-05-2005 8:37 pm

Abstraction is dead in the 21st century.
- anonymous (guest) 5-20-2005 10:57 pm

its going to take abstraction to save art in the 21st century. we are in a downwardly spiraling world of infantile poop right now.

- bill 5-21-2005 12:29 am

t's been 45 years since I was an art student discussing, debating and kicking around the same worn out topics such as I am reading above. Abstraction, although defanged, is not dead exactly, just fitting into its rightful place as an over blown movement that caused much public intimidation and confusion toward art. I want to be clear that all abstract art is not bad art any more than all traditional art is good art. Also, abstraction will not return to save art any more than "Star Wars" sequels returned and saved the film industry. If someone is making a pile of money on their art, when it really is garbage, it doesn't reflect art today as much as it reflects effective marketing, lack of taste and sophistication, and of coarse snob appeal among the so called intellectual elite. It is evident that you don't need a license to practice art, so what can we expect but a wide range of good to awful results...defiantly more art in bad taste than before. When I was an art student, most instructors believed that a good academic foundation was the key to all worthwhile art regardless of what direction you pursue. Today it couldn’t be more apparent to those that have an educated eye, that they were dead center right. And what would photo realism be without the camera? The exposed lack of good drawing skills.
- Tommy 8-15-2005 9:41 am

why copy photographs when one can just print one? what kind of self-persecuting premise would demand on anyone the tedium of trying to render as a machine? as macluhan predicted the photograph and its lineage including digital projections ...the mediated technological image of reality has replaced the retinal brain matrix as the measure of visual truth and beauty. why else would people try to immitate it? painting is best when it shows us what we otherwise would not, yet can perceive it because it is underpinned by the particularities of our hardwiring as imaginative primates.
- brigit 9-11-2005 9:00 am