Some in Australia believe that Damien Hirst’s latest series, titled the “Veil Paintings,” looks strikingly familiar—perhaps, too familiar. The canvases of overlapping colored dots, they say, are pointedly reminiscent of those by Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910–1996) and other female Aboriginal artists.
Hirst has said the vibrant abstract compositions—which sold out in their debut exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles—were inspired by Post-Impressionist French artist Pierre Bonnard and Pointillist George Seurat as well as his own series, “Visual Candy,” from the mid-1990s.
But several Australian artists and dealers maintain that the works also appear indebted to a community of indigenous female artists in Utopia, Australia, near Alice Springs. “The Utopia painting style is unique to their desert tradition and rendered on canvas in the hope young people will learn about their past,” wrote ABC Australia. “The desert dot paintings are often aerial landscapes painted from memory over many painstaking hours.”
Nevertheless, Hirst’s representatives say the artist was “unaware” of this work. In a statement provided to the Guardian, a spokeswoman said: “The Veil Paintings are a development of a series Damien made in 1993–1995 called Visual Candy and are inspired by pointillist techniques and Impressionist and post-impressionist painters such as Bonnard and Seurat. Damien was unaware of the work or artist in question, but he has huge respect for the importance of the value of art in all cultures.” (artnet News reached out for further comment, but did not hear back by press time.)
In response to the kerfuffle, the New York-based dealer Emerald Gruin is organizing an exhibition at Olsen Gruin gallery featuring the work of Aboriginal artists Kathy Maringka, Polly Ngale, and Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi. Curated by Adam Knight, the president of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia, and on view from May 16–June 17, 2018, the show aims to highlight the similarity between the abstract painterly style of all three women and Hirst’s “Veil Paintings.”
In interviews leading up to the show, Hirst has repeatedly maintained that this series was personal—as much about his own history as art history. Unlike many of his other series, he painted this one himself, without the help of studio assistants. “I just thought fuck it, I need to go back to my original feelings about color and forget the grid and to hell with order,” he wrote on Instagram.
The show sold out on opening day, with the canvases going for between $500,000 and $1.7 million, for a reported total of $18 million. In comparison, data from the artnet Price Database indicates that Kngwarreye set a new auction record this month, with the £309,000 ($430,662) sale of Kame – Summer Awelye II (1991) at Sotheby’s London. (An Australian gallery, CooeeArt, claims to have auctioned Kngwarreye’s Earth’s Creation I  for $2.1 million in Australian currency, or $1.59 million, in November.)
“If you like these sort of paintings that Damien Hirst does, you could buy an original Emily Kngwarreye for a lot cheaper than a Damien Hirst painting,” Christopher Hodges told the Guardian. “It’s not just that he used little dots, it also seems that there’s dots within dots, which is one of the things that she did… There’s shifting layers.”
Whether or not you see the resemblance, or believe that it is intentional or coincidental, some in the Australian community are calling for Hirst to give credit to Indigenous artists.
“I was a little bit shocked when I saw [the "Veil Paintings”] ’cause I thought they could have been passed [o[off]s some Utopian work,” Indigenous artist and Arts Law Centre board member Bronwyn Bancroft told ABC. “[T[There’s] moral obligation, I think, on behalf of Damien Hirst, to indicate the influence for this last series of work actually came from an Aboriginal art movement.”
This isn’t the first time Hirst has been accused of some form of artistic plagiarism; similar charges were leveled at the artist during his Venice exhibition, “Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” Some critics, including artnet News’s Ben Davis, pointed out that Hirst’s biennale show looked almost exactly like the Grenada Pavilion‘s group presentation, “The Bridge.”
See more examples from Hirst’s “Veil Paintings” series and the work of the Utopia artists below.
“Damien Hirst: The Veil Paintings” is on view at Gagosian Beverly Hills, 456 North Camden Drive, Los Angeles, March 1–April 14, 2018.
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