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    Letter from London
by David Cohen
 
     
 
Damien Hirst's Pharmacy restaurant.
 
The Pharmacy stair.
 
Hirst's pill wallpaper.
 
Hirst's Mens Room Medical Waste.
 
Ashtray (Nicotine)
at Pharmacy
 
Damien Hirst's infatuation with the medical profession is as unceasing as the journalistic profession's is with him. Hardly a day goes by that there isn't some press reference to the master of the specimen-in-formaldehyde, the medicine cabinet, the pill-like colored spot.

This summer the medics became interested in him as well. The artist-entrepreneur's designer eatery in trendy Notting Hill Gate came under the scrutiny of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. The group objected to the name -- Pharmacy -- on the grounds that the public could be misled. Imagine rushing in with a Prozac prescription to find a crowded bar with waiters milling around in surgical aprons, and floor-to-ceiling cabinets of decorative, but empty, packets of drugs.

At Hirst's Pharmacy there are plenty of alcohol solutions and tonics available, but not the kind that doctor had in mind. Upstairs, in the dining room, exquisite wallpaper sports a pill motif, Hirst's fin-de-siecle answer to William Morris, while the canvases on the wall are his ultra-stylish arrangements of dead butterflies on monochrome grounds.

While we're on the furnishings and fittings, the masterpiece here -- and probably the best Hirst I've seen anywhere -- is an Arman-inspired men's-room vitrine including heaps of used medical detritus behind a wall of thick glass.

The Royal Society's objections were of course ridiculous, and were probably as much a gambit to advertise itself in the national media as anything else. To oblige, Pharmacy rearranged the letters on its minimal white exterior into the anagram "achy ramp," although the restaurant employees still say "Pharmacy" if you phone for a reservation, which you need to do weeks in advance if you want a table at a civilized hour. The food's rather good, as it happens, less oppressively carnivore than Hirst's other "joint," the revamped Quo Vadis in (London's) Soho, where the upstairs bar is decked with pickled relatives of that which is on the menu.

It's funny that Hirst's sculptures, unpalatable in art galleries, look so at home in chic restaurants. A contrast with Rothko's Seagram murals, which were bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in 1969 when the artist decided they were just too god-damned spiritual for a restaurant.

Recently the Tate rehung them according to the strict instructions in the artist's will. His sacral installation calls for gray walls, low-level lighting and seclusion.

     
 
Chris Ofili
Afrodizzia
(2nd version)
1996
 
Cathy de Monchaux
Evidently Not
1995
The Turner Prize
The Tate published the short-list for its annual Turner Prize in July: Tacita Dean, Cathy de Monchaux, Chris Ofili, Sam Taylor-Wood. Works by the finalists will be exhibited in October, and the winner of the £20,000 prize, sponsored by Channel 4 Television, is announced on Dec. 1.

The list was all female last year, and includes only one male this time around. Ofili's garishly colored, ethnic-naive paintings are the first examples of the traditional medium to make the short-list in quite some time -- no doubt thanks to their collaged elephant dung components.

Taylor-Wood and Dean work in photography and video, while De Monchaux is a sculptor whose intricate, fantastically ornate objects of fabrics and metal have a kind of dense gothic quality that recalls, at best, medieval (Islamic and Christian) armor and heraldry, and at worst the graphics of heavy-metal album covers.

Taylor-Wood is probably the favorite in terms of institutional clout -- she won a prize at the last Venice Biennale and has had shows recently at the Kunsthalle, Zurich, and the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. Like Hirst, she's of the White Cube stable, and is a leading light of the Brit Pop scene.

     
 
Tate Gallery of Modern Art
Photo Hayes Davidson
 
Nittve at Bankside
Other news from the Tate: it's appointed a director for the Gallery of Modern Art that is to open in a converted power station on the river Thames in 2000 at Bankside. Lars Nittve was formerly director of the Louisiana. How much power he will actually wield remains to be seen. Nick Serota, overall director of the Tate in its two venues (Bankside will be for modern art, Millbank, the existing site, for British art since the 16th century), is no soft touch.

Meanwhile, art is already arriving at Bankside in the form of giant-sized screenings on the exterior walls. Devotees of avant-gardism at its most mind-numbingly tedious will be able to sit out eight hours of Warhol's Empire at some point this month.

     
 
Lucian Freud
Eight Months Gone
1997
 
Patrick Heron
The Long Table with Fruit
1949
 
Patrick Heron
Horizontal Stripe Painting:
November 1957-January 1958
 
Patrick Heron
Rumbold Vertical Four...
1970
 
Patrick Heron
2 July-3 July: 1994
 
Heron's self-portrait
 
Lucian Freud, Patrick Heron at the Tate
Back at its old venue, Millbank, the Tate hosted two significant shows this summer, Lucian Freud and Patrick Heron. A room of new works by Freud, whose rostrum of sitters now accommodates the suitably gawkish Jerry Hall, were given an airing before crossing the Atlantic for his next Aquavella Gallery show in New York.

A chasm of cultural difference separates Freud, a master of the moody interior, the bored-stiff sitter, the lugubrious palette and the "hard-won" surface, from Heron, a doyen of English abstraction, a exuberant colorist and a class-act art critic to boot.

Heron was something of a child prodigy, and as a teenager in the 1930s produced Matisse-inspired scarf designs for his father's modish company, Cresta Silks. During World War II, as a conscientious objector, he worked for the potter Bernard Leach in St. Ives, and it's with the artist colony in that town that his name is closely associated. He is the youngest of the so-called "middle generation" that also included William Scott, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Winter, English Abstract Expressionists who owed as much to Paris as New York.

Heron was an early devotee of New York School painting, responding warmly to a room of Pollock, Rothko, et al. in a State Department traveling show of contemporary American art that came to the Tate in the 1950s, and he was sought out by Clement Greenberg when the critic visited London soon afterwards. But this Anglo-American art friendship turned sour. Heron discovered Clem to be an operator, and noticed that the transatlantic acknowledgments were not reciprocal. He also thought that British (and to a lesser extent French) innovations went unacknowledged in New York.

Notoriously, he became convinced that a set of ektachromes of his own stripe-format paintings "went astray" from the offices of Artnews and that his discovery was ripped-off by Morris Louis. This "stripes" issue came to dog Heron's reputation as broader concern about "American cultural imperialism" became his obsession. But the sumptuous show at the Tate, which was selected and hung by David Sylvester, relegates these concerns to the footnotes of history, where they belong. Heron emerges as a consummate epicurean, discovering new ways of exploring the richness of shape, color, relationship.

He once said that he loves images but hates symbols. A late convert to pure abstraction, he thought at first that, like his Ecole de Paris heroes, Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso and Braque, he could embrace abstract values while retaining references to the observed world. As an abstractionist he never went any more minimal than his stripes (which are nothing like Louis, by the way; they are richly glowing, shaped lines with ample breathing space between them).

He realized that completely paired-down abstraction, whether centered or all-over, implied a symbol, which is bad in his book because symbolism is a function of the literary. From his high-modernist perspective, art is almost a Manichean struggle between the literary and the formal. Simplistic, maybe, but his writings, concerned with fantastic insistence on the material facts of painting, eschewing any kind of moral or spiritual interpretation, were a great tonic in the neo-romantic and neo-realist post-war English art scene.

Once he realized the potential symbolic-cum-conceptual element of pure abstraction, he pulled away from it. First, by arguing for, and achieving in his own work, a "recomplication of the picture surface," going for decentered configurations which nonetheless retain a liberating sense of pictorial economy. This approach culminated in his "jigsaw"-like compositions of the 1970s with their gorgeous, textured areas of color pushing up against each other. But these "hot, tight" composition eventually burst, and in the fall-out -- loose, gestural, linear designs with plenty of ground showing through and much greater spontaneity -- representation made its comeback, be it as tropical leaves or the steeped terraces of St. Ives, where he paints in Ben Nicholson's old studio.

     
 
Peter Doig
Concrete Cabin West Side
1994
 
Bird House
1995
 
Figure in Mountain Landscape
1997-98
 
Peter Doig at the Whitechapel
The Whitechapel Gallery hosted an exhibition this summer of Peter Doig, previously on view in Kiel and Nuremburg. Doig is an interesting case -- an artist at ease with the "ascendant" Brit Pop brigade (he exhibits at the right-on Victoria Miro Gallery) who is also seen much further afield as a realist of genuine interest.

His typical subjects are winter landscapes in Canada, where he grew up: skiing scenes, people walking in woods or iced-over water, houses -- often modernist in design -- in snowscapes or even blizzards. His treatment entails extraordinarily rich -- actually rather lurid -- color (pinks against yellows, for instance) and extravagantly textured surfaces, transforming prosaic subjects into weird, otherworldly depictions.

The amount of detail lavished on these works in terms of composition, application of materials, and consideration of the decorative effect belies any sense of deliberate kitsch or "bad painting." Yet they have a nauseous quality that cannot escape the artist and are presumably part of his appeal on the scene. The sickly decorative quality is actually quite close to Turner nominee Chris Ofili (Doig himself, incidentally, was short-listed for the same prize a few years ago). There is also a pronounced influence of Alex Katz's Maine landscapes, with their canoes, jetties and reflections. But while Katz is an obvious hero to someone seeking to reinvent realism while keeping tabs on avant-garde preoccupations, ultimately the weird decorative overload in Doig relates more to symbolist forebears, putting one in mind of Klimt or Segantini at their zaniest.

Victoria Miro hung a couple of new Doigs in her Cork Street space during the run of the Whitechapel show. In truth, his works came off much better in isolation, as they have done in the past, than in accumulation. Perhaps they are so to do with overload that one has to take care not to overdose.

     
 
Tony Bevan
Corridor
 
Tony Bevan
Head
 
Tony Bevan
Head
 
Tony Bevan at Hue-Williams
Upstairs from Miro, Michael Hue-Williams was showing a new group of paintings by Tony Bevan. His abrasive, gritty realism is somewhere between Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Dennis the Menace in its draughtsmanship, and shares an unlikely but pronounced kinship with Doig in coloration and surface texture.

To be sure there is a radical difference in mood: Bevan goes for a high-octane energy level, snarling angrily at himself in his self-portraits, catching the muscles in his neck tightening in anguished contortions, capturing naked torsos in meaty pinks and reds and violent shocks of hair in sprayed-on graffiti-like black pigment. But the bright palette and decorative paint surfaces are of a similar intensity (and incongruity) to Doig's.

Bevan's brutalism, like Doig's decorativeness, is ultimately mannerist, but unlike Doig he is not working in esthetic territory where that might actually be interesting. What is at first an arresting use of line in what seem merciless dissections of the face soon degenerate into a set of expressionistic tropes. He seems to have opted for the benefits of illustration (rawness, immediacy) without fully considering the price, the selling short of his unmistakable facility.

Even more theatrical than his sneering or upturned faces are the depopulated architectural interiors -- his "Corridors" series -- but these are actually the more satisfying for the commensurability of simplistic means and effects. In the recession of horizontals and verticals, achieved with smudged raw charcoal (or pigment) adhering to the support, there is a sense of these corridors belonging to menacing institutions. They capture rather than merely titillate the viewer.

DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.