1. I spent a spring semester studying both the dusty slides of impressionist art and attending blockbuster exhibitions of blue-chip white male British artists. A standout: Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate, the shark preserved in formaldehyde, the diamond encrusted skull and a room full to bursting with real, gossamer butterflies, in various states-- some dead on the floor, some mid-flight, cocoons adrift in the corners.
2. (As Sarah Douglas pointed out in an artnews daily email) Hirst is not the only artist to use insect wings. Dubeffet also made dense collages of wings, creating kaleidoscopes of colors. And even earlier-- 17th century painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck, who painted "forest-floor still lifes," canvases teeming with snakes, beetles, shrubbery. It was discovered that, at least once, there was a real butterfly wing, scales caught, iridescent, in the paint. These real scales are lost, now, with only a few traces remaining-- because what is more ephemeral than the thin, fragile wing of a butterfly?
3. In London, I felt as fragile as a butterfly wing-- an ocean away from my life. All I did was look at art and buy books. A temporary identity cloaked me-- I could be as out as I wanted, and no one would think it new or strange. It was false, of course. I landed back on earth one night in a filthy nightclub, when the bartender followed me for the better part of an hour saying I had to prove I was a lesbian by kissing various girls. I had to be rescued by a bouncer, and never returned.
4. Hirst's kaleidoscope paintings feature thousands upon thousands of butterfly wings pressed into household paint in geometric, sweeping designs. His gallerist and publications point to the symbolism of the butterfly, of resurrection. The paintings, seen on the wall, give the appearance of stained glass windows, both fragile and eternal.