Before Turner prize winner and enfant terrible of the modern British art scene Damien Hirst staged his career retrospective at the Tate Modern, art critic Julian Spalding appeared on Channel 4 to encourage the naïve art buyers of the world to abandon Hirst’s work as it would soon be worthless. His thesis on this subject seemed to rest on the assertion that Hirst’s work, including his seemingly endless series of dot paintings and numerous animals pickled in formaldehyde, was not art; it was merely a series of objects that looked like art.
Jonathan Gibbs’s debut novel posits, among many other questions, this point – if it looks like art, is it still art, and if not, what’s the difference?
In the world of Randall, Hirst has long been dead thanks to a deadly combination of alcohol and train, and so the burgeoning Young British Artists movement needs a pioneer. Told partly through the biography of its eponymous lead by close friend Vincent (think Nick Carraway with the self-awareness to know he’s the most boring person in the room), the book follows the rise of Randall’s career, from art school origins to the pinnacle of controversy and wealth.
There are two big difficulties with writing a story about a ‘great artist’, particularly a visual one: The first is in ascribing the proper language to describing the magnificent works of art themselves. It’s not enough to just say they’re great. The second is to create something that not only could feasibly be of its time but could elicit the kind of reactions it does in the story. Fortunately, Gibbs has the skill to pull both elements off. Randall’s work is part Hirst, part Koons with a dash of the Chapman brothers for good (and seriously upsetting) measure. The only part where this really falters is in the modern day scenes, where Randall’s secret stash of paintings are discovered. Yes, it would be somewhat shocking to discover the bad boy of modern art had been painting highly detailed pornographic scenes featuring real people, but this is also the world where Jeff Koons made sculptures of himself copulating with his porn star wife and Marina Abramovic masturbated all day under the floorboards. Randall himself makes his name by painting ‘self-portraits’ of people’s used toilet paper, so painting your wife having sex with your friend feels like tame in comparison.
Vincent’s narration is often pompous, peppered with his desperation to remind the reader that he knows lots about art, but he’s also a fascinatingly manipulative man, eager to craft a tale that posits himself as a key figure in history. He’s fully aware of how disposable he is in the grand scheme of things, and admits as much, but wants to make sure his place is cemented, even if it’s only in his own mind.
Randall is, as you can imagine, the most interesting character in the story; a larger than life creation who is well read and passionate about his work but also smart enough to know how to play around with his public reputation. He bluffs his way to the top with bravado and a touch of trolling, and actual talent comes into it somewhere too. The thrill of the chase is far more fulfilling than the end destination, and his disenchantment with the art world he helped create, one fuelled by the deepest pockets and the most ostentatious displays of wealth, feels accurate to the period it’s depicting. His absence from the story is felt deeply, particularly in the final 15% of the book that switches back to the modern day as Vincent and Randall’s widow Justine decide what to do with the newly discovered dirty paintings (although that ending is a real kicker).
I struggle to call Randall satire because for the most part it feels more reminiscent of a dramatization with history, albeit one populated with fake people. You get the feeling Gibbs wishes he’d bought the rights to Hirst’s own life story (Hirst is releasing a memoir soon, although he admits he’s forgotten most of his life). That’s not to say that he hasn’t written a wonderful book; it’s just one that’s almost eerily believable. Digs at the art world and the hangers-on that populate it hit their targets sharply, from descriptions of the rich and famous coming to ‘sit’ for a shit painting to the Qatari royals who just want the most expensive art regardless of its true value. There’s much to gleam from Randall regarding themes of the value of art, the commodification of creativity and the destructive power of wealth, and for the most part they feel organic to the story. They only feel out of place during the 3rd person modern day scenes, particularly a subtle-as-a-brick moment where one character tells the story of Zeuxis and the painted grape. It’s a moment of clunking symbolism that feels unintentionally artificial in a story fuelled by the awareness of it.
Galley Beggar Press, the tiny Norwich based independent publisher, landed the deal of their lives when A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing landed on their desks, and if there’s any justice in the publishing world, Randall could easily reach similar heights. It’s a baggy book that becomes wildly uneven in the final stretch but remains an intensely readable and fascinating book that dissects the idols, false or otherwise, of the modern art scene with sharpness and a hint of affection. The chances are Hirst would love it.