When an artist's celebrity reaches the level of Damien Hirst's, paring the deafening hype from the actual product can be a little precarious. But in the case of Hirst, whose work is often predicated on shock value, that doesn't seem to matter too much. Really, are we compelled to stare at the dead animals Hirst has famously displayed in formaldehyde solutions because they're brazen exemplars of conceptual art? Or do we hold our gaze in the same way we can't resist staring at roadkill? The four works on display at the Portland Art Museum show just how well Hirst toes that line.
In a painting entitled "Autopsy with Sliced Human Brain," the viewer sees the latex-gloved hands of a coroner poking at sections of a brain with a scalpel and tweezers. The photo-realistic rendering parallels the detached subject matter perfectly. Perhaps most unsettling is how the coroner is depicted from the elbows down. While the subject's head is absent where a viewer would anticipate it, it seems to be relocated in the form of the brain itself, slivered across the table.
While the painting hints at Hirst's ever-present obsession with death, the two installation pieces drive the point home. "Something Solid Beneath the Surface of All Creatures Great and Small" displays a host of animal skeletons—a snake, a pelican, a ram, etc.—in a glass-and-steel case. Staged with the same clinical presentation as a natural science exhibit, Hirst's sculpture lulls the viewer into a false sense of security. Death appears sealed off, contained. "No Art; No Letters; No Society" operates in the same way. Comprised of three pharmaceutical cabinets, stuffed with meticulously arranged medical supplies, Hirst seems to present the threat of illness as benign and manageable as the tidily organized boxes of tongue depressors and bottles of pills. But among the supplies, he also adds human skulls and jagged pieces of mirror. It's Hirst's way of implicating the viewer in the inevitable cycles of illness and death. Surely, what makes this so irresistible for the viewer is the subconscious knowledge that he is staring at his own fate.