An imperceptible, diaphanous white veils the colourful dots of Damien Hirst’s Bungarus caeruleus. Painted in 2008, the present work is an arresting example of the artist’s signature Spot series, where a precisely rendered, equidistantly spaced flock of flat circles – here in muted pastels – appears mechanically produced but are actually hand painted. The title, Bungarus caeruleus, refers to the common krait, a venomous snake found in the Indian subcontinent. In Bungarus caeruleus, the strict almost molecular geometry is countered by the seemingly arbitrary selection of colours; the painting presents limitless chromatic possibility ruled by a strict formal order. Inspired by Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts which Hirst saw as a student, the Spot paintings, too, rejoice in an infinite symphony of colour, yet there are underpinned by a powerful and uncanny sense of dissonance, reflected here in the work’s titular poison. Hirst explained this paradox saying ‘If you look closely at any one of these paintings a strange thing happens, because of the lack of repeated colours there is no harmony...in every painting there is a subliminal sense of unease; yet the colours project so much joy it’s hard to feel it, but it’s there. The horror underlying everything. The horror that can overwhelm everything at any moment’ (D. Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 2006, p. 246).
The dialogue between beauty and mortality evident in the present work lies at the heart of Hirst’s practice. His art often questions the structuring of belief systems, specifically the unwavering faith placed in modern medicine. In series such as the Medicine Cabinets, Hirst adopts the same rigorous order and patterning as in the Spot paintings to challenge such blind devotion: ‘Art is like medicine–it can heal,’ he has said. ‘Yet I’ve always been amazed at how many people believe in medicine but don’t believe in art, without questioning either’ (D. Hirst, p. 246). Within the gridded organisation he sees the beginnings of a regulatory and totalising system, but ultimately the buoyant colours overwhelm Hirst’s cynicism: ‘No matter how I feel as an artist or a painter, the paintings end up looking happy...I believe painting and all art should ultimately be uplifting for a viewer. I love colour. I feel it inside me. It gives me a buzz… I see them as an endless series, a scientific approach to painting’ (D. Hirst, ibid.) These compositions reveal fields of psychological and perceptual space, at once tranquilly predictable, unnerving, euphoric and ordinary. In effect, they capture the human condition and all its manifold unpredictability. The Spot Paintings offer endless permutations of both colour and patterning – each one unique – as a restorative elixir; art, Hirst suggests, possesses a soothing power.