A Side of Death
Imagine you're going to be executed. Admittedly, it's not a pleasant hypothetical situation, like "Gee, what if I won a million dollars?" But just supposing you were going to die tonight, what would you want for dinner? It's an absurd question, but one that people awaiting execution answer. That meal is one of their last bits of the world, and what they choose is revealing.
Celia Shapiro re-creates and photographs the last meals of death row inmates. Her work is part of "Truth Matters: The Meaning of Objects," an exhibition of photographs at the Houston Center for Photography that subvert the still-life genre. Two photographers stand out from the others: Shapiro, with her morbid repasts, and Laura Letinsky, who creates scenes of breakfast table aftermath. In both artists' work, food -- that staple of the still-life genre -- becomes a vehicle for exploring life and death.
In Shapiro's work, a jar of dill pickles sits on a white plate with a napkin -- it was the last meal of Stacy Lawton. While awaiting execution, Lawton wrote to a friend, "I grew up loving pickles and I'll go loving them." He had a tenth-grade education and was convicted of shooting a man while trying to steal his truck. Up until his execution, he denied being the triggerman.
The plastic trays and utensils in Shapiro's color photos are brightly colored but off-key. The large-scale images look cheap and lurid, befitting their subject matter. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice used to list the last meals of prisoners on the TDCJ Web site. According to the Houston Chronicle, the list was the site's most popular feature, but it was removed last December; critics said making the information public was tasteless and demeaning. TDCJ had posted menus from almost every one of the 313 people executed in Texas since 1982. Remnants of the site can be found at www.thememoryhole.org/deaths/texas-final-meals.htm.
Another photo shows the last wishes of Jeffery Allen Barney, who admitted to raping and strangling a 52-year-old preacher's wife. He chose a children's breakfast cereal -- two boxes of Frosted Flakes -- and a pint carton of milk as his last meal.
At the other end of the dietary spectrum is Karla Faye Tucker. Her last meal was a leafy green salad with a peach and a banana. Tucker had a seventh-grade education and was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the 1860s. She used a pickax to help kill two people and then became a born-again Christian. (She's also the death row inmate about whom then-governor George Bush made his infamous "please don't kill me" joke, imitating her after having put her to death.) Is the healthy, wholesome food somehow symbolic of Tucker's spiritual rebirth?
Looking at the range of photographs, the food is all humble fare. There are hot dogs and Tex-Mex and bottles of soda. It's the poor people who get the death penalty. Even so, using the photos to extrapolate socioeconomic information about the inmates has its limits. After all, meal choices are limited to what's available at the prison. Nobody can order out from Le Cirque.
These photographs of last meals conjure up a kind of prurient fascination. You know these people were convicted of horrible crimes. Suddenly, something as banal as hot dogs for dinner achieves a bizarre, biblical "last supper" symbolism. That the state is delivering last meals and delivering death is driven home in a disturbingly mundane way. The majority of these inmates were from Texas, and considering Houston's recent crime-lab scandals, the photographs are even more unsettling. Nothing in these harsh and seedy images looks appetizing.
Laura Letinsky is using images of food to decidedly different effect. Her work isn't really about food; it's about sensuality. Letinsky is known for her photographs of couples being intimate -- in every sense of the word. But in her new series, Letinsky's lens is turned to the breakfast table, with equally intimate results. Images from her "Morning and Melancholia" series hauntingly present the breakfast aftermath in soft, warm light.
The tables are covered with evocative white, sheetlike tablecloths that bear the stains of coffee and the residue of succulent fruit. In one image, a table is sparsely littered with crumpled napkins, a pear core and cherry pits, but the scene is about eroticism rather than bad housekeeping. You see the marks of teeth on the remaining flesh of the pear; you know the cherry pits in the little stack have been in someone's mouth. The sensuality is palpable. It feels like you're witnessing the aftermath of something far more intimate than the sharing of a meal -- or is it that they're equally intimate?
In another image, a white cutting board is laid across a narrow table. A white mug balances precariously close to the edge. A milky white footed bowl with a leafy pattern holds a pile of overripe peaches that seem about to spill over. There's a decadent, messy abundance to the mass of tender, skinned fruit. On the board rests a peach pit, broken in half so it looks almost like an eye. There's something of the memento mori in the image; the "eye" stares at you and the fruit seems just on the edge of decay. The scene feels earthy and alive, but just for the moment.
The photographs of "Morning and Melancholia" evoke a kind of lingering, bittersweet aftermath. Through her skillfully staged photographs, Letinsky manages to put her finger on an emotional state that's indefinable but recognizable. Across the gallery, Shapiro's constructed images confront us with our own society. These two artists reinvigorate the often hidebound genre of the still life. They make it speak to us. They make it tell us things about ourselves and the world we live in.
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