We’re No. 1! That Texas leads the country in executions — 394 since 1976 — probably isn’t news to most of you, but it makes Julie Green’s installation “The Last Supper” at DiverseWorks especially relevant. Green makes art about the last meals of death row inmates; it’s a pretty provocative topic and one that another artist, Celia Shapiro, addressed in a strong series of photographs on view at the Houston Center for Photography a few years ago. Shapiro re-created and then photographed the last meals of Texas death row inmates in lurid color. Green has an equally successful but more meditative approach. Hers is an ongoing project in which she painstakingly paints little still-lifes of inmates’ last meals on hundreds of plates. At DiverseWorks, she has covered the wall with them.
At first glance, Green’s installation looks like an over-the-top display by some obsessive decorative plate collector. Then you notice the careful renderings of French fries and chicken-fried steak, and you realize this isn’t a product of the Franklin Mint. The plates, in various sizes and shapes and with a variety of border patterns, create the feeling of a group of individuals. Green’s work currently numbers 234 plates and spans 21 states. She culls her last-meal information from newspaper accounts of executions. Using blue pigment on a random assortment of white china, Green paints delicate images onto the surface. The paint goes on thick and Vaseline-y, but looks like watercolor after it’s fired.
Some of the plates are stenciled with the words “did not want his last meal released to public.” For those inmates, the last meal was a private thing. What isthe fascination last meals hold? Is what someone chooses to eat before they die a somehow profound revelation? What does it mean if you want to die with the taste of fried okra on your lips? How about Diet Coke?
A last meal seems like it ought to be something extravagant. But a rare instance of lobster or salmon is as exotic as the food gets. A lot of the states, Texas included, limit inmates to what is available in the prison cafeteria. There’s a goodly amount of junk food; a bag of Jolly Ranchers was one inmate’s sole request. Many of the food preferences tend to reflect region and ethnicity. There’s fried crappie in Arkansas, crab cakes in Delaware, grouper in Florida and enchiladas and chitterlings in Texas. There’s also lots of steak and burgers and biscuits. The choices of familiar foods seem to offer a blend of comfort and nostalgia.
There is something pretty poignant about all of these plates, partly because food is something we all have in common. That you and a convicted murderer both love barbecued pork ribs somehow humanizes that person. Green says that when she paints the plates, she thinks about “the death penalty, the victims, the heinous crimes committed, the individuals executed, the large number of minorities on death row and the margin for error in judicial process.”
America and Japan are the only developed nations who still have capital punishment. The plates bring up many of the disturbing issues surrounding the death penalty. Looking at them, you wonder what horrible things these people did, but you also have to wonder, were any of these last meals eaten by innocent people? How many of them were eaten by someone like Arkansas inmate Ricky Rector, a mentally retarded man who saved part of the pecan pie from his last meal for a post-execution snack?
Green opposes the death penalty and plans to keep on painting plates until it is abolished. She doesn’t include the names of the executed death row inmates. Sidestepping the most prurient aspects of the subject, she only identifies the plates on a works list by the inmate’s execution date and last meal. But a Google search reveals that one request was by Odell Barnes, Jr., a Texas death row inmate. Barnes’s case caught international attention and caused Pope John Paul II to urge then governor, and presidential candidate, George W. Bush to show “compassion.” Barnes was executed, and Green has painted his last request on a gold-rimmed oval plate: “Justice, equality, peace.”