Oscar Dish of Celebrities and Butterflies

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It takes chutzpah to roll into LA just a few days before the Oscars and still hope to get some attention for a project not connected to Hollywood -- at least not directly. To win this game, ambition is not enough; one needs to be a superstar, propelled by a superagent. Damien Hirst, the most famous of the so-called Young British Artists, and Robert Wilson, the much celebrated American avant-garde theater director, stage designer and sculptor, flew in last week to supervise the final preparations for the openings of their high-profile exhibitions at the two most glamorous galleries in town. Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills showcased the reliably naughty paintings by Damien Hirst, for which thousands upon thousands of butterflies gave up their colorful lives. Meanwhile, along the Miracle Mile on Wilshire Boulevard, ACE Gallery pulled out all the stops to assure maximum dramatic effect for the overwhelmingly stylish video portraits by Robert Wilson.

I found out about the Hirst exhibition a few weeks ago when a correspondent from the Sunday Times of London called asking for my opinion of this British artist inextricably linked to the notoriety of his 14-foot tiger shark suspended in a gigantic fish tank filled with formaldehyde. "So, Edward," he asked, "What do you think of the timing of Hirst's first big exhibition in Hollywood just three days before the Academy Awards?" My response was that Larry Gagosian has impeccable antennae: with so many stars in town as a potential audience, the exhibition promised to be a big media event. And it was. Close to a thousand people crammed into the gallery on opening night to ogle the splendor of Hirst's monumental butterfly paintings reminiscent of medieval stained-glass windows, though according to the 41 year-old artist, they were actually inspired by old Victorian tea trays.

So as not to offend the genteel sensibilities of our politically correct era, we are informed that no endangered species were used for this project, and only butterflies raised on farms were, to put it delicately, euthanized in service of art. The resulting paintings, impressive at first glance, don't hold the attention for very long. Disappointingly, upon close inspection, they become much, much less than the sum of their glorious parts. There is something distinctly banal and mechanical in the way rows upon rows of jewel-like wings are embedded in paint. I wonder what the famous writer Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, would say about these paintings given his own obsession with butterflies, which he captured, studied, and classified throughout his life.

Robert Wilson, showing at ACE Gallery his recent video portraits of celebrities and equally glamorous looking animals, knows a thing or two as well about how to capture his prey and mount the trophies on the wall. These high definition videos, displayed on various sized plasma screens, initially give the impression of still photographs. However, upon patient stare, they reward with the startling discovery of signs of life, such as breathing or infrequent blinking, as in the portrait of French actress Isabelle Huppert channeling the spirit of Greta Garbo or the image of almost-naked Mikhail Baryshnikov portrayed as a dying St. Sebastian pierced by arrows. Many of the portraits are decidedly, almost comically, contrived. My most memorable encounters were with the mysterious and slightly nervous porcupine and with the evil-looking black panther, which coolly assessed this art critic as nothing more than a potential snack.

Damien Hirst: Superstition
Gagosian Gallery
On view through April 5

Christopher Goodwin
Mr. Hirst Goes to Hollywood
Sunday Times of London Culture Magazine

Robert Wilson: VOOM Portraits
Ace Gallery
On view through April

*** The VOOM Portraits were commissioned and produced by VOOM HD Networks, which also produces 15 channels of original high-definition programming, available nationally on the DISH Network. VOOM's channels cover sports, movies, fashion, animation, music, culture and art.   Robert Wilson has been an Artist-in-Residence at VOOM since 2004.

Banner Image: Robert Wilson, South American Porcupine, 2006 65" Plasma Screen, Custom Speakers, HD Media Player 3' (H) x 5' 5" (W) x 4" (D)