"Irony and horror, beauty and cruelty, birth and death are the poles between which there oscillates the theatrical sense of work that [Hirst] is always able to present in direct and irrefutable fashion," (E. Cicelyn, "The Agony and the Ecstasy," in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 18).
"Hirst is essentially a romantic artist, amazed by the sweep of life, from its grandest themes to its grittiest detail... His work is essentially life-affirming, even at its most chilling moments," (R. Shone, "Damien Hirst: A Power to Amaze," in Damien Hirst: Pictures from the Saatchi Gallery, London, 2002, p. 85).
Observed from a distance, Damien Hirst's Fear, confronts the viewer as a vast and bewitching black void. It is only upon closer inspection that we begin to discern an exquisite and iridescent tapestry comprising thousands of dead flies, densely layered upon the canvas. These tiny creatures conspire to form a thickly encrusted plaque, in which gleaming black bodies and delicate translucent wings intermingle to create a captivating visceral texture. Both irreverent and entrancing, Fear is a perfectly executed large-scale example of the notorious fly paintings that span over a decade of Hirst's oeuvre. Created in 2002, the work coincides with Hirst's re-engagement with the medium following his first attempt in 1997, employing a refined technique that included the use of resin. Situated within the most significant period of this innovative series, Fear is contemporaneous with the celebrated Cancer Chronicles, as well as one of the artist's most important fly paintings, Who's Afraid of the Dark?, currently held in the Tate Collection, London. Pursued until the late 2000s, the fly paintings present a vivid and arresting contemplation of some of Hirst's most definitive themes: life and death, sublimity and fear, and the inescapable entwinement of beauty and horror that lies at the very core of existence.
Hirst's first fly painting, Untitled Black Monochrome (Without Emotion), 1997, inaugurated the medium as a conceptual extension of two of the artist's most iconic and controversial works: A Thousand Years and A Hundred Years, both created in 1990 during the early stages of Hirst's career. Comprising adjoining glass vitrines, in which live flies fed on rotting matter, gave birth and died on the suspended Insect-O-Cutor, these works positioned the common insects as metaphors for the natural patterns of life. "I think it was Thomas Hobbes who said people are like flies brushed off a wall," claimed Hirst. "I like that metaphorically. Your whole life could be like points in space, like nearly nothing. If you stand back far enough you think people are just like flies, like the cycle of a fly is like your own life," (D. Hirst, quoted in interview with M. D'Argenzio in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Selected Works from 1989-2004, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 2004, p. 94). In the fly paintings, this sense of dialogue between the individual and the collective mass is taken to a new level, with each fly's identity subsumed by the overall pictorial effect of abstract monochrome. Inspired by Richard Serra's black paintstick drawings, the fly paintings subvert the aura of contemplative meditation traditionally associated with the monochrome, recasting the canvas as a teaming, crawling, swarming entity that vibrates with the traces of a thousand minuscule organisms. Indeed, observing the present work, we feel as though we are gazing into the void of a densely populated universe, a veritable constellation of beings that glimmers with the abundant remnants of natural life.
An acute observation of the mechanics of death has consistently underpinned Hirst's oeuvre, profoundly demonstrated in the Natural History works that first catapulted him to international acclaim in the early 1990s. By preserving animal remains in formaldehyde, the artist slowed the process of decay, thereby artificially halting the effects of mortality. With regard to the fly paintings, however, Hirst has expounded the uniquely poetic quality of his chosen medium: "The death of an insect that still has this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing. I remember thinking about that. They don't rot like humans," (D. Hirst, ibid., p. 83). Hirst's particular fascination with insects has given rise to a number of other significant series within his output, including his extensive butterfly paintings, alongside his more recent Entomology works, in which a plethora of invertebrate species are arranged into intricate patterns upon the canvas. As is typical of the artist, however, the beauty and gravity of his endeavour are joined by an almost comic incentive: "I remember painting something white once and flies landing on its, thinking 'Fuck!' but then thinking it was funny," claims Hirst. "This idea of an artist trying to make a monochrome and being fucked up flies landing on the paint or something like that," (D. Hirst, ibid.). In this regard, the fly paintings exemplify the sense of theatre for which Hirst's work is universally renowned, staging their own poignant brand of tragic comedy.
Whilst the fly paintings may be seen to correspond with the darker side of existence, for Hirst they are ultimately life-affirming. "I think I've got an obsession with death, but I think it's like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can't have one without the other," (D. Hirst, quoted in D. Hirst and G. Burn, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 21). Indeed, as Rudi Fuchs has argued, "for all its compelling imagery, [Hirst's] work is not sinister...Fear of death is a more powerful emotion than love or lust. To some extent fear of death keeps us alive," (R. Fuchs, "Victory Over Decay," in Beyond Belief, exh. cat., White Cube, London, 2008, p. 6). As a series, the fly paintings may be seen to investigate the subtle point of transition between life and death, between nature and art: in this respect, they are tinged with a sense of romanticism that complements their impenetrable black intensity.