Mat Collishaw Turns Death Row Inmates' Last Meals into Art

Consider the 61-year-old woman who was beaten until unrecognizable, raped, and strangled to death. Two televisions and a VCR were stolen from her home. Or how about the 26-year-old shoeshine girl stabbed more than 50 times and left to die in a church driveway, also after being raped?

"It's too much information," Mat Collishaw says. "It's not very important and is a distraction."

Then try instead: enchiladas, burritos, chocolate ice cream, and a cantaloupe cut in half. Or lettuce, tomato, cucumber, four celery stalks, four sticks of cheddar cheese, two bananas, and a pint of cold milk.

These are the last meals requested by the men put to death in Texas for the aforementioned crimes. These and other menus are the subjects of a series of 13 gorgeous photographs that, with a video installation and two sculptures, comprise a show of recent work by Collishaw on display at the Bass Museum.

"Well, I'm not necessarily sympathetic to these guys," Collishaw clarifies. "They're not nice guys. But it's this very 21st-century cold, calculating way to serve someone a meal. The chilling nature of that is something I want to put in the pictures."

Collishaw was part of a group called the Young British Artists (YBA), whose startling work and wild lifestyles revolutionized English art in the 1990s. His work showed at the historic 1988 show "Freeze" alongside that of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Michael Landy. Today, he's in his late 40s, keeps his hair just short and washed enough to be able to mix in polite company, and has the burning glower one might expect from a man who photographs smashed insects for a living.

And the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami is preparing a show of Collishaw's fellow YBA and ex-girlfriend, Tracey Emin. MOCA curator Alex Gartenfeld says, "It's an interesting time for a reconsideration of that generation of artists. When they emerged, they were just digested at the level of collecting in the United States but not on an institutional level. So we now have an opportunity to return to them in that way."

The photographs are made in the style of 17th-century Dutch vanitas still life paintings, the silver candlesticks and ornate hourglasses of those works swapped for fried chicken legs and a bowl of cereal. The foods, left to decay, had been heaped on a silver tray and are captured with a small aperture in low light atop a table. French fries spill over the side of the platter, violating the otherwise perfect placement of the series. It is a reminder of the fallible human hands in the serving and consumption of these foods.

"I chose stainless-steel plates, the kind of indestructible plates you'd find in an institution," Collishaw says. These almost mock the expensive silver platters seen in the original Dutch paintings. "As I was placing and rotating the cutlery, I decided they were a contrivance too far and removed them. But with a glass, that sliver of light that describes the surface of Coca-Cola adds to the humbleness of the picture."

Continue reading "Mat Collishaw's Last Meals at the Bass."

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B. Caplan