Damien Hirst has made a fortune and become an art-world brand by peering at life's dark side.
Rows of skulls stare sightless from deep blue backgrounds in the new exhibition by the man who turned pickled sharks and rotting cows' heads into multimillion-dollar works of art.
"I got called morbid at school," Hirst said Tuesday ahead of the show's opening at London's Wallace Collection. "I used to borrow the teacher's red pen to draw the blood on severed limbs.
"I like looking into the darkness. It fills me with wanting to live," added the 44-year-old former enfant terrible of British art. "The further into the darkness you look, the brighter the brightness becomes."
The most striking thing about the show, "No Love Lost," isn't the skulls _ Hirst's work has long dwelled on mortality and decay. The surprise is that these are paintings, executed in oil by Hirst himself.
After gaining fame as a Britart bad boy in the 1990s, Hirst became an industry, employing dozens of assistants to create signature works such as multicolored dot paintings and rows of pill bottles in medicine cabinets.
Some critics carped that Hirst's factory-scale output devalued his work _ a criticism Hirst says is misguided.
"Architects don't build their own houses," he said. "That's a criticism of craft, really, not of art.
"People want something made by the actual artist. But in terms of art, I don't like that. I just want a beautiful object."
In any case, prices for Hirst's work soared. A Sotheby's auction last year netted almost $200 million, a record for a living artist. A buyer paid $17 million for a shark preserved in formaldehyde, and an embalmed calf with golden hoofs sold for $18.5 million.
The two-day sale began on Sept. 15, 2008 _ the day Lehman Brothers bank collapsed and the global economy tipped into crisis. That timing has made the auction seem like the end of an era, the twilight of a long art-market boom.
Since then, even Hirst has been hit by the credit crunch, laying off staff and closing two workshops.
"We're definitely not selling like we were," Hirst said. "We were very lucky with that auction. I think it's a lot more to do with luck than skill."
The paintings in the current show represent a return to basics, although Hirst says his new focus is not a response to the economic crisis. He started work on the paintings in 2006, and continues to paint. An exhibition of more recent paintings _ branching out from blue into red and other colors _ opens at London's White Cube gallery next month.
Hirst said he enjoys the time and attention that painting requires.
"I'm very impatient as a person," he said. "I got into the rhythm of getting a lot of things done using other people."
Hirst has matured over the years. The artist once famed as a celebrity hell-raiser gave up drinking and smoking three years ago.
But it still feels incongruous to see his work in the Wallace Collection, an 18th-century mansion chock full of Old Master paintings, antique furniture and assorted gorgeous objets. Hirst's paintings take up two rooms, their walls lined in pale-blue silk chosen by the artist to complement the classical surroundings.
Clare O'Brien, the collection's director of development, said the show situates Hirst "within the European painterly tradition."
"There is the connection with life and death, which are subjects artists have been painting for centuries," she said. "And it is obviously one he thinks very deeply about."
Critics acknowledge Hirst's bravery in placing his work alongside the Titians and Rembrandts in the Wallace Collection, but early reviews for the show are not good. The Guardian said that "at its worst, Hirst's drawing just looks amateurish and adolescent," and The Independent dismissed the paintings as "not worth looking at."
Hirst said he tries to ignore reviews.
"The biggest effort I mke is not to get excited by the good ones. Then you can ignore the bad ones."
He also tries not to think about money, calling the prices his work fetched at last year's auction "bonkers."
"Last year, I (had) the most expensive artwork ever paid for a living artist, and then two weeks later it was Jeff Koons," he said. "And for a moment you do go, 'Damn.' But it's just meaningless ... It's like buying a yacht. Somebody always parks next to you in a bigger one."
"No Love Lost" is at the Wallace Collection in London from Wednesday until Jan. 24.
On the Net: http://www.wallacecollection.org
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