Imitate gallery

    A couple of weeks ago I get a phone call. It’s Hirst’s office. He’s about to have a huge exhibition in America and would like to show me what he’s sending before it disappears into private Yankee ownership. The show is at the New York gallery of the man recently voted the most powerful figure in the art world: Larry Gagosian. The last time Hirst showed at Gagosian’s it was the art event of the season. The whole of New York could not stop talking about it for months. So yes, I would like to see this new stuff. Where do I go?

    To a particularly seedy corner of Lambeth, it turns out, opposite some railway arches in which teams of furtive Lambeth mechanics are busily respraying nice-looking cars. Hirst has just bought an industrial complex in the street, part of which he is using as a painting studio.

    There are vague plans to turn the rest into galleries. Every time I see him these days he has just acquired another big property. He only flew back a few days ago from Mexico, where he now owns something on the beach near Acapulco. The Duke of Westminster had better watch out. Damien is catching up.

    The new painting studio is the size of a large parish church. Though perhaps taller. Stuck to the walls in a ring, as if by centrifugal force, is an assortment of boiler-suited assistants, carefully dabbing away. That’s photorealism for you. It can’t be done from a distance. Damien’s in a boiler suit too, and takes a bit of spotting. He looks well. A couple of pounds heavier, perhaps. Lots more polar-bear hair in the barnet. But he’s still on the wagon, and it is still giving him energy to burn. Usually I would let him gabble at me for a while before turning to his art, because Damien is such an entertaining gabbler. But I simply cannot believe what I see when I enter, and brush past him to take a closer look. Of all the things that this gore-splattered chameleon could have become, becoming a photorealist is perhaps the least likely.

    The first image that registers seems to show a street in Baghdad through which an old man is being carried by a gang of screaming insurgents. You know the sort of sight I mean. Turn on the news and it’s there. Though never 10ft tall. The next one displays a huge stash of credit cards on a table, and someone wearing forensic gloves showing how they’ve been cloned. There’s a monkey with its brain opened up. There’s that crack addict from the underground poster whose face ages from left to right, from pretty to grotesque, from girl to skull, in a horrible sequence of time-lapse mugshots.

    Photorealism was an invention of the 1960s. You take a photograph and you copy it studiously, until your painting becomes almost indistinguishable from the photograph. Why doing this should be worth the bother has been the subject of much debate. From my experience of the technique, which is considerable because there was a time when everyone was doing it, it works in the manner of a great impressionist — a Yarwood or a Bremner. You know you are looking at something pretending to be something else. And that’s it. But the imitation has a magical clout to it. It’s something to do with possession. Whose look am I anyway? In Haiti they stick pins into dolls that stand in for other people, and would surely understand this mystery. Isn’t it closely related to voodoo?

    Damien explains how it works. First he identifies a photograph that he wants to re-create. Then he gets his people to phone up and get permission to use it, while never revealing it’s for Damien Hirst. The Baghdad suicide bomber was spotted in a newspaper, and cost £25 to clear. The carefully painted pills were from his own photographs of his own pill sculptures, and are the prettiest of the new paintings. The two skulls, a big one and a little one, are from that peculiar report of a new species of miniature human that was recently discovered in Indonesia. “It’s just an excuse to paint skulls,” Damien guffaws happily, with that winning laddishness of his. He’s called it A New and Diminutive Species of Human Being Has Been Discovered.

    The teams of assistants do most of the bread-and-butter copying — “If it was me I’d paint it monochrome and stick a fag packet in the middle” — and Damien patrols the results, jazzing up this and that: a dab here, a daub there. He’s just been working on the blood pouring down from a football hooligan’s face and takes me over to inspect his handiwork. He’s been adding glazes. Making it look more bloody.

    Don’t the assistants get upset when he dabs about with their paintings? Doesn’t he sometimes spoil what’s there? All the time, he giggles, proudly, but they are not their paintings, they’re his. And to ensure this is clear, he swaps the assistants around from picture to picture so nobody is ever responsible for the whole thing. Smart strategy.

    There is plenty of room here for further argument about whose paintings these actually are, and what exactly the meaning is of these weird transformations. But one thing I can tell you immediately is that they work. This is exciting stuff. There’s enough blood and gore here to make it a Hirst show, but the prettiness, the precision, the spooky Yarwoodistic sense of possession are entirely new.

    Damien goes off to change. He’s returned from Mexico with what appears to be an outfit stolen from a mariachi singer: skintight black trousers, a black body-hugging matador’s shirt, encircled with a huge silver belt. Wow. As a private amusement, I run the names through my thoughts of celebrated British artists who would have risked this outfit. Hogarth, definitely. Turner, yes. Bacon, like a shot. But Sir Joshua Reynolds, no. Sir Edwin Landseer, no. Sir Anthony Caro, no. Is it me, or do we have a pattern here?