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Reheated Bacon

White Cube Mason's Yard and Hoxton Square, London

What can a portrait do to its subject, beyond the usual act of depiction? The question is unexpectedly raised in Damien Hirst's new two-site show. Among the many paintings of carrion crows, skulls, knives, empty pill bottles, corpses and other mortal intimations is a series of portraits in chalk white and inky blue. Each represents Angus Fairhurst, Hirst's close friend and contemporary.

Fairhurst was 41 when he hanged himself at the close of his final show. Everyone spoke of his death with extraordinary sorrow. To those who only knew his droll and philosophical artworks, it became apparent that he was much loved as a person too. Hirst has painted not one but half-a-dozen portraits: keeping him present, keeping him going.

These canvases share their hues not just with Francis Bacon's early portraits but more obviously with blue period Picasso; which might make you think of Picasso's memorials to his great friend, the painter Casagemas, who turned a gun on himself. But Picasso paints the apotheosis of Casagemas, his soul rising to heaven on an El Greco uprush of exorcism and prayer. What Hirst is doing is by no means so clear.

The Fairhurst portraits are perfectly recognisable and densely worked. You have the sense of an appearance coming and going – remembered, half-remembered – and of a character buried somewhere in the paint; clumsy, yet with something approaching force of personality.

But Fairhurst is presented as a head and severed neck, upright but positioned within a chalky outline that irresistibly proposes John the Baptist's head on a salver. A martyrdom then – but what about the suicide's still-attached rope? Dead again? Twice killed? Certainly overkilled: these decapitated totems, giving neither life nor afterlife, keep the subject very viscerally and emphatically dead.

In a catalogue interview with the late Gordon Burn, Hirst speaks of his anger towards Fairhurst. And perhaps this is a squaring up, as well as a coming to terms. But for all their painterly effects – brutal, expressive, theatrical – the tone of these works is peculiarly indistinct. The only certainty is that they are sincere.

And sincerity is a big issue with Hirst's latest paintings. The facts about them are known by now: he is making them himself (no more assistants); they are not critically admired; they are indebted, first to last, to Francis Bacon. One way to tell them apart is that they anthologise trademark elements – sharks, ashtrays, drugs, butterflies, grids of spots – so that buyers will always be getting hallmarked Hirst (his recent Wallace Collection show was bought wholesale by the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk).

Another way, of course, is simply to look.

For though they rely entirely upon Bacon for surface appearances – shallow space, figures emerging out of darkness, chalk-line cages and space frames, empty chairs, blood-red triptychs framed in old gold – there is no affinity in terms of meaning or mood. Hirst uses Bacon as a backdrop for his own show, arranging and rearranging his motifs like props.

The paradox of painting – the three-dimensional world conveyed in two-dimensions – clearly intrigues him as a sculptor. In fact, the overwhelming sense here is of Hirst reprising his tanked installations in a space he hopes to make drastically flat. The props are weightless and often silly – a lemon, a lime, a Sabatier knife – and he uses all sorts of daft devices to jam the illusion of depth. But occasionally there's a good convergence, as when flurries of bristling black strokes merge with the actual feathers of harbinger crows.

But the crows aren't menacing any more than the knives are sharp. Even the darkness is just the darkness of Prussian blue. Hirst has no feeling for the things he paints, so nothing here has the graphic force and register of his sculpture, and the images are the opposite of what collage (his modus operandi) should be – subtle, coherent, significantly arranged. You can't get any feeling off these cannibalised Bacons at all.

Naturally this makes no difference to the market. Within this self-perpetuating vacuum, it hardly matters whether Hirst can cut it with the brush or not; he risks neither fame nor fortune with these blank, underpowered and derivative works. But there is, I think, something profound at stake for Hirst himself. In the portrait of Angus Fairhurst, there is a palpable sense of effort, struggle, genuine perplexity. The fear of death, at last, is not theatrically faked. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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