Nothing Matters, White Cube, London

Britart's bad boy gets his paints out again, but the results are not exactly Bacon ... more like a dog's breakfast

Lest you are newly back from Mars, something in the nature of a miracle has happened in British art: Damien Hirst has begun to paint.

Yes, I know about the Spot paintings, but Hirst's new works, on show at both branches of White Cube, were made, not by a fleet of assistants with spray guns, but by the artist's own hand and brush. This marvel has been met with all the hype his gallery can muster – Jolson Speaks! Hirst Paints! – so that you half expect Jay Jopling to hand out tots of restorative brandy as you emerge, dazed, from a visit.

And how amazing is all this? Well. Even if installation and concept have hogged the headlines for the past quarter century, I'd guess that something like 90 per cent of art made in Britain has consisted of painting. It was Hirst himself who led to the remaining 10 per cent being dubbed "Britart", as though there was no other kind. Much of the power of Hirst's work lay in its being anti-painterly, made by assistants, taxidermists and vitrine-builders. This was hardly new – Duchamp's readymades became Hirst's madebysomebodyelses – but something in the clinical nature of his art caught the public mood. In Hirst's work, the artist's hand became a metonym of the flesh and the flesh of mortality. Rid art of the hand and, vampire-like, it might never die.

So the insistent hands-on-ness of Hirst's new work is historically significant, whether you like it or not. And frankly, I don't. Who could? Underlying this work is the belief that you can, in middle age, take up painting and have the results shown at the most important contemporary gallery in London as if by right. And guess what? If your name is Damien Hirst, you can. But, other than as historical curiosities, will paintings made under such an assumption ever be worth looking at? Can they in any sense be good?

Let me say that "good" here is not another word for polished or skilled: Bad Painting, done well, has a solid place in 20th-century art. But there is Bad Painting and bad painting, and Hirst's work is the second.

In the ground floor space at Mason's Yard are canvases done largely in blue. Hirst's Blue Period – he has been painting for nearly two years now – echoes not so much Picasso's as Francis Bacon's, particularly the Savile-Row-blue images Bacon made of his lover, Peter Lacy, when he, like Hirst, was 44. Downstairs are Bacon-ish triptychs in Bacon-ish frames surrounding such Bacon-ish things as anatomised bodies and empty staircases.

Of course, Hirst has also made anatomical figures, most famously the 20ft bronze doll, Hymn. I suppose the frame of his trademark shark-in-a-box might explain the sketchy white lines, apparently lifted from Bacon's pope-cages, that score the surface of Walk Away in Silence – the shark jaws in Insomnia and Time Will Tell certainly refer less to Bacon than to a Bacon-like tendency in Hirst. And then there are the smaller (and, to my mind, better) paintings of the object with which Hirst is most closely identified as an artist, namely the human skull. Of all the works in this two-part show, Half Skull in Opposite Corner II, painted on newspaper laid on canvas, is the only one that lives up to Hirst's earlier fame, that makes you hope he will stick to his brushes.

All of which raises a great many questions, the most obvious of which is why? Hirst, with his vitrines of flyblown meat, has always been a Baconite. Why does he now feel the need to work like Bacon? A triptych called How Did We Lose Our Way? may suggest an answer. Bacon died mid-way between Freeze and Sensation, the two shows that made Hirst's name. Could the younger man's return to paint on canvas mark an admission that the Britart experiment has, in the end, been a failure? Seen like this, the dreadfulness of Hirst's painting might be excused as intentional, a sign that something has been lost in British art and that that loss is irreparable.

I certainly prefer this possibility to the other, which is that Damien Hirst feels he can paint by dint of being Damien Hirst. This, appallingly, is not the case. I went to White Cube determined not to fall into the British trap of thinking that artists can only do one thing well, that installationists and conceptualists can not also be painters. Look at Michelangelo. I left with a sense of sadness that a man whose pills and diamond-covered skull will remain icons of his time should have been laid so low.

White Cube, London N1 and W1 (020-7930 5373) to 30 Jan 2010

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen