Victor Solomon & Damien Hirst
Stained glass has a long history dating back to Egyptian and Roman times, but has developed a great deal in the last thousand years. The medium reached its peak in the Middle Ages as Gothic architecture, used for Cathedrals and churches, placed an emphasis on interior light in religious buildings. Stained glass windows gave the opportunity to portray Bible stories to a population that was largely illiterate. It evolved as an art form as the development of new techniques made production cheaper, and was more commonly seen in homes when the use of stronger building materials allowed for larger windows at a lower cost. Over the last century, stained glass has fluctuated in popularity, but can still be seen in many homes, with the intention of portraying grandeur and status.
Solomon and Hirst are both currently active artists, working in a world where the Christian church’s power has declined. This is evident from the 2011 UK census; while Christianity still held a majority of 59%, an increasing number of people responded as having “no religion”. Despite this, stained glass maintains its symbolic link to the Church, and it is often here that young people first encounter quality examples of the medium. It was used by the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming more fashionable and bringing with it a new way to create decorative, abstract designs.
One of a series, “Mighty Healthy” (2016) is a basketball backboard hand-crafted by Solomon out of stained glass, in traditional Tiffany style taught to him during a year-long apprenticeship, with a net made from Swarovski crystal. Mimicking both a window and a backboard, the bold lead lines stand out against the clean background of the gallery and the opalescent glass obscures the wall behind it, creating a softer effect than normal stained glass. The artist has chosen to show the piece on a wall rather than as a free-standing or suspended object, drawing a greater parallel with a stained glass window. With a number hung around the gallery, the space begins to feel like a church, each piece lit by spotlights as if they were holy icons. Solomon is exploring the rise of the celebrity of sport, and the passion of the audience that adore sports and its personalities. Even the terminology has crossed borders; the word “fan” or “fanatic” derive from the Latin word “fanaticus” meaning ‘of a temple, inspired by a god’, from “fanum” meaning ‘temple’, and was first used as a noun to describe religious zealots. This isn’t really surprising, considering the ferocious loyalty of some sports fans.
The name “Mighty Healthy” is taken from a song by Ghostface Killah, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan. Both hip-hop and basketball were highly influential in America, and are heavily linked, with many of the stars on both sides growing up in the same areas and dealing with similar issues. Some of the stars have moved between careers, including Shaquille O’Neal, whose playing career spanned nearly 20 years and who has also released four rap albums to date. The Tiffany style, used by Solomon, was pioneered in 1880 by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and is characterised by the use of opalescent glass which can be seen in “Mighty Healthy”. This method became very fashionable, especially in America, as it complemented the increasing use of marble and limestone in architecture; there was a Tiffany window in the White House until 1904. Solomon has combined these three icons to create a narrative of the modern American Dream. While the pattern may be abstract, the form carries its own narrative; the rise in the status of sport, and its ambassadors celebrated to the point of becoming household names.
From the materials chosen, it’s clear that this backboard is meant to be looked at, not used. Extensive time and effort has gone into making this item unique, and this could not be further from its playground counterpart. Many people, young and old, continue to harbour dreams of achieving fame through sport. The success stories can be seen everywhere, often including unlikely candidates, and all seem to follow the same pattern – if you work hard, you can achieve it. A simple message, and very effective branding. Solomon has chosen to use mirrored glass in this design (and others), and as the audience admire the work they also view their own reflection. He toys with the themes of ambition and vanity, placing the viewer in the piece so that the achievement of a grandeur becomes tantalisingly close. Solomon himself has described this series as being about “the fragility of luxury”. If this backboard were to be used, it could easily become badly damaged. It has no use beyond decoration. When the utility of an object is stripped away, owning it becomes an expression of luxury and excess, a reward of perseverance and ambition.
Hirst’s piece, “Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven” (2007), explores the idea of excess but in a different way, incorporating his well-loved theme of death. These giant imitation stained glass windows are covered in butterfly wings, taken from real butterflies. These insects have become a regular motif in Hirst’s work, and he uses them (and other insects) to explore mortality, construct life-cycles, and pick apart their beauty under harsh lighting. In “Doorways…”, the window designs are symmetrical and each of the wings is chosen to perfectly match its reflections. The obsessive collecting and the level of organisation in this piece brings to mind Renfield’s obsession with death in Dracula. Renfield believed that he could stave off death by consuming as many lives as possible. He begins by compulsively collecting flies, and slowly increases the size of his “meals”, much like the tale of the old woman who swallowed a fly, in an attempt to consume these in a more efficient way. Rather than consuming the insects to seek immortality, Hirst has immortalised himself by creating artwork with them.
The triptych is enormous; an explosion of primary colour, the black background imitating the lead lining of a stained glass window and emphasising the brightness of the hues. The piece is overwhelming, the scale creating a magnitude worthy of its title; “Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven” references the religious connotations of stained glass windows, and conjures up images of pearly gates. Cathedrals and other holy buildings use scale to impress upon visitors a sense of humility in the face of such grandeur. Earlier this year I visited Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and the elaborate interior, amazing scale, and the use of light and sound created an atmosphere of warmth and safety, all the while impressing on the visitors their own insignificance. The gallery light may be harsher, the walls may be bare, but the huge arched doorways offer a experience. Hirst invites the audience to step closer and explore the world he has created with open-mouthed wonder. The viewer is drawn in by the scale, and kept there by the detail.
Teetering on the edge of mania, Hirst’s work explores an idea that became popular in Gothic literature in the 19th Century; man playing God. At the time, science – medicine in particular – was progressing in leaps and bounds, and people began to fear that man’s power over nature would have negative consequences. These fears are well documented in Frankenstein, as the title character experiments with overthrowing death without considering the aftermath. He mistakenly believed that he would be in control of any outcome. Hirst references this self-assurance in the title of the piece; as the creator of the work, he intimates that he has the power over admissions into Heaven. By placing a collection of perfect samples before us, Hirst explores the increasing power of science over religion, and mankind’s effect on the world around us.
As with much of Hirst’s work, he places emphasis on science, and the format of this triptych is reminiscent of an entomological collection. The work is stunning, as nature often is, but examining the beauty in detail simulates scientific scrutiny. From afar, the colours and patterns of Hirst’s “kaleidoscope painting” offer a sense of order and wonder, but up close the truth of the piece is laid bare; as beautiful as the piece may seem, its real subject is death. There is no pretending that the butterflies may still be alive, for they have been separated from their bodies. In laying this starkly before the audience, Hirst jilts them out of their promised route to the afterlife.
Both Solomon and Hirst harness the power of these religious motifs to lay a future before the viewer. Solomon captures the ambition of the audience and offers them a life of luxury that most can only dream about. Hirst invites the viewer to examine the entrance he has constructed, exposing them to repeated reminders of their own mortality. People have always sought answers and solace, increasingly without religion, focusing their lives on their passions with the knowledge that the world is a fragile and finite place, and this is what makes it beautiful.
Morris, E. (2000) “Stained and Decorative Glass”. Bounty Books.
Victor Solomon – Literally Balling. “Mighty Healthy”. http://www.josephgrossgallery.com/victor-solomon-gallery-3
Damien Hirst. “Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven”. http://www.damienhirst.com/doorways-to-the-kingdom-of-hea
Office for National Statistics – Religion in England and Wales 2011 (Dec 2012) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11