Monday, September 22, 2008

Cosmic Ray

Damien Hirst’s Beautiful, cataclysmic pink minty shifting horizon exploding star with ghostly presence, wide, broad painting (2004) and Charles Ray’s Rotating Circle (1988). A large collection of Hirst’s work is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ray’s work is currently on view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.

Both Damien Hirst and Charles Ray could be said to belong to what Richard Serra calls post-Pop Surrealism. Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami might be this not-a-movement’s most famous sons, but Hirst must rank pretty high on that list as well. After all, the New York Times even covers his auctions.

A recent statement about another work by Hirst might apply to much of what has filled museums and galleries for the last thirty years. Describing For the Love of God, Hirst’s diamond covered, platinum cast death’s head, Roberta Smith writes, “It seems like the perfect summation of our wasteful, high-priced, oblivious moment, an implicitly regal 21st-century equivalent of Cellini’s gold saltcellar.”

That archaeological bloggers have linked it to jewel-encrusted skulls of the past seems fitting. Clearly, For the Love of God is meant for royalty, announcing that our current disparity in wealth is akin to despotic kingdoms of days gone by. James Benning has said that the role of the artist is to pay attention and report well and one way of looking at Hirst’s one-hundred million dollar vanitas is as a report on what he has observed.

But another work by Damien Hirst, Beautiful, cataclysmic pink minty shifting horizon exploding star with ghostly presence, wide, broad painting (2004), can send your mind reeling in a different way. Perhaps the first thing Hirst’s canvas calls to mind is Spin Art; the fact that the canvas itself rotates would seem to be redundant, but upon closer inspection the rotation ceases to be a gimmick and becomes the dominant factor in the viewing experience. The scale is enormous--12 feet in diameter--large enough to fill your peripheral vision. The day-glo landscape before your eyes is moving just fast enough so that you cannot focus on anything for very long. As in Pollock, there is an essential displacement of horizontal to vertical: gravity itself has been recontextualized. Also as in Pollock, the painting moves. But the movement of Autumn Rhythm is only the movement of the painting in your perception. Hirst’s painting actually has RPMs. It is difficult to stand and stare at it, to say the least. “Not unpleasantly nauseating” gets a little closer.

Perhaps the only thing Charles Ray’s Rotating Circle shares with Hirst’s mammoth explosion of color is that it spins. Hirst’s painting is unmissable; like a carnival, it serves as an advertisement for itself--the bright lights are the ride. Ray’s work, on the other hand, is often heard before it seen, if it is seen at all. Looking for the source of a low, humming sound--a child once described it as the noise a refrigerator makes--you find a circle on the wall. Closer inspection reveals that the circle is not on the wall but in the wall: a perfectly circular cut. Intrigued, but perplexed, you take the time to find the wall tag. Upon learning that the name of this piece is Rotating Circle, you stare at it intently trying to discern whether or not it is in fact rotating.

Stare. Stare. Listen. Stare. There are no more clues. Is the sound entirely disconnected? Is the whole thing a brilliant trick? Maybe you notice that the wall inside the circular cut is impossibly smooth, identical with the drywall around it, yet somehow more perfect. At this point, staring, wondering, fixating on a circle and listening to a drone, you have essentially entered La Monte Young territory. In a neat trick, Ray’s cultivated irony has spawned a transcendent experience. Ray denies any connections to Zen, and rightly so: the work has much more in common with the transitional phase between minimalism and conceptual art--Michael Asher’s heat-molded Plexiglas pieces, for instance--than the enso. Like Asher’s pieces, Ray’s raises questions of perception at the same time that it challenges the boundaries between art and the wall and, by extension, art and the world.

Rotating Circle, roughly the size and height of the artist’s head, is human scale. Its content is perception. It is attractive the way that a puzzle is attractive, but it is also utterly banal--you are quite literally staring at a wall. Spinning at several hundred RPMs, however, it has undergone a fundamental, if subtle displacement that makes it both witty and profound. Casually eschewing the heady associations and over-seriousness of minimalism at the same time that it sidesteps the slick irony of the art-market eighties, Ray’s piece surpasses mere cleverness to provide us with an object (or an experience) that helps us reflect on the very nature of perception.

Posted by Madison Brookshire