Time Apart

“Primer on canvas,” begins the list of media for a celebrated work by the artist Damien Hirst. Familiar enough. But the list goes on: “pupae, steel, potted flowers, live butterflies, Formica, MDF, bowls, sugar-water solution, fruit, radiators, heaters, cool misters, air vents, lights, thermometers and humidistats.”

Nearly 30 years ago, on the ground floor of a very short-lived gallery in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, Hirst created a living exhibition in which “an artificial humid environment [was] designed for breeding butterflies,” the Yale Center for British Art explains. “The butterflies were hatched and flew free until they died. A white Formica table held four bowls of sugar water to feed the butterflies. The walls were lined with five monochrome primed canvases on which were attached pupae. Plants were placed below them to attract the butterflies to settle back on each canvas after hatching.”

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The YCBA hasn’t replicated that living and dying world, but it has resuscitated the other half of the same conceptual work, titled In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) (1991), to mark its impending 30th anniversary. Visitors to the museum’s third floor (advance reservations are recommended) first encounter a large, rectangular, white Formica-topped table with one chunky glass ashtray full of cigarette butts perfectly placed on each corner. The table is flanked by two large white cubes with a small hole cut in the center of each face. Hung on the wall behind this display are solid-colored canvases in robin’s egg blue, orange, lime green and bubble gum pink. On each are just a few real butterflies—dead now, but appearing as if they could have just landed there.

Hirst’s work as it appears here is an artifact of the larger exhibition, in which the static elements you can see today would have been in conversation with the lepidopterarium, situated one floor above it in 1991. Upstairs in the London gallery, the canvases were merely primed in white, the butterflies were alive and the table was set with their food. Downstairs, in contrast, the colored canvases, the glossed butterflies and the butt-filled ashtrays would have felt more like an end point, the remains of an opening party for an Exhibition (with a capital E) of the thing upstairs. “Both spaces are called In and Out of Love,” Hirst reportedly told Frieze magazine when the original exhibition was mounted. “One’s the romantic view of it, the other is the harsh reality. I’m not sure which is which.”

Photographs of the original installation of In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) show a gritty space with concrete floors, grimy baseboards and hidden ductwork—nothing like the hushed, carpeted, carefully lit YCBA. You’ll have to use your imagination. The upside is the YCBA’s twist: Taking a cue from Hirst himself, who reportedly tagged the work’s themes as “love and realism, dreams, ideals, symbols, life and death,” the Center has mounted with it an eclectic collection of paintings reflecting those themes. Together with the Hirst piece, they make up the exhibition Love, Life, Death, and Desire: An Installation of the Center’s Collections, on view through February 28, 2021.

Ian Stephenson’s Diorama SS 10.67 (1967), one of only two contemporary pieces in Love, Life, Death, and Desire aside from Hirst’s, is striking for the ways in which it echoes In and Out of Love. The colors of Hirst’s monochromatic canvases appear here in tightly packed splatters and dots of luscious paint. The canvas is sliced down the middle, and the subtle, multicolored pattern that emerges is mirrored from one side to the other, not unlike a butterfly’s spread wings, though unlike those wings, on this canvas the mirrored pattern is inverted. The textured surface suggests the sticky medium on which Hirst’s insects seem to have landed.

The remainder of the works in Love, Life, Death, and Desire stand less comfortably beside Hirst, but it’s a treat to see them. Take, for example, Henry Fuseli’s spectacular Dido (1781), which depicts Virgil’s version of the story of the founder and queen of Carthage, who, spurned by Aeneas, is driven by heartbreak to build a funeral pyre and publicly stab herself to death. Lit at the center of the canvas, Dido’s arms are outstretched as if crucified, a bloody sword at her side, though no wound appears on her pristine, white-clothed body. A messenger of the goddess Juno reaches down from a whirlwind of clouds to grasp Dido’s hair. She wields a sickle that will cut the locks and free Dido’s soul, while below, a lady in waiting mourns, her arms draped parallel to Dido’s across her lap. The rich, dramatic lighting and the choreography of the three figures’ arms gives the story a theatrical dynamism.

The juxtaposition of these and 17 other pieces with Hirst’s installation foregrounds one striking theme of his own work. He’s quoted as saying that, with In and Out of Love, he wanted to highlight the distinction between life and art, “a crazy thing to do when in the end it’s all art.” At Yale, Hirst’s conceptual work, so reliant on the context of its other half, revisits that observation. The 19 accompanying paintings on view seem to communicate more successfully across the boundaries of time. We’re able to view them much as our earlier counterparts would have, in their entirety, hung on a gallery wall. In sharing a show with the other pieces in Love, Life, Death, and Desire, the remains of Hirst’s work seem to be asking anew: In the end, is it all art?

Love, Life, Death, and Desire: An Installation of the Center’s Collections
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Fri noon-7pm, Sat-Sun noon-4pm | free timed-entry tickets
(203) 432-2800 | [email protected]

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art. Image 1 features detail of In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays) by Damien Hirst (1991). Image 2 features Dido by Henry Fuseli (1781).

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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