Casting Stones

September 30, 2015

Julie Green, Last Supper, 2000-present

Julie Green, Last Supper, 2000-present

After a long hiatus for a whole mess of reasons, I’m returning to the discipline of looking and praying and writing. I never stopped looking, but it’s time to get back to the praying and writing. I need it.

Green-FishJulie Green’s Last Supper has been on my mind since I saw it at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University this summer. The project, I think, is brilliant. In a nutshell, she has painted about 500 (and counting) individual plates to show the meal requests of death row inmates. She includes the state where the execution occurred and the date. Sometimes, when there was no last meal, she has text simply describing situation–a denied request or no request at all, for example.

To stand in a room full of these plates—there were 357 in the exhibition I saw—is haunting. I felt the presence of these individuals. I knew approximately three things about them, but that was enough to make each one a distinct individual. There is something oddly intimate about knowing what someone wanted for their very last meal.

Green-Breakfast2Bagels and coffee. Three eggs, three slices of bacon, three sausages and toast. Fried chicken and watermelon. Grilled fish, oysters, and prawns. Four eggs, four chicken drumsticks, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tortillas, hash browns, garlic bread, two pork chops, white and yellow grated cheese, sliced onions and tomatoes, a pitcher of milk and a vanilla milkshake. A pack of cigarettes.

Green helps us to think about the humanity of these individuals. By showing us something about them that is so basically human, she deters our tendency to view these individuals as “the evil other,” and instead gives us something in common with them. What would you request?

Green-KFCGreen’s choices underscore her message. Because she uses second-hand plates—and each one unique—the plates feel so personal. As objects, they had previous lives in which they held other meals for other people, and now they carry their own last meals as well. At the same time, there is something monumental and unified about the plates because there are so many of them, and all painted in a brushy style with cobalt blue. There is, after all, one thing that unites all the different lives these plates represent.

What makes this particularly brilliant, at least to my mind, is how Green subtly draws a connection between these individuals and Jesus. The title “Last Supper” is not simply a play on a well-established subject matter in art, she uses it to make bigger claims (or ask bigger questions).

After all—Christ, too, was executed. He also had a last meal.

In this, her project takes on a slightly different angle. Can justice ever be fair, true, and impartial? In Jesus’ case, clearly not. Jesus was tried on trumped-up charges and condemned by a judge who was clearly manipulated by a powerful interest group. And our own justice system? How many of these death sentences have been the result of similar circumstances? How can we ever know?

A student who was with me in the exhibition pointed out that Green’s approach completely elides the facts about the crimes these prisoners committed and that, if we knew the charges, our feelings of connection and maybe even sympathy would likely be significantly diminished. I agree.

What Green does, however, is level the field—to emphasize our common humanity—in order to question our right to judge and condemn to death. Even if they have committed heinous crimes and “deserve to die,” do we have the right to kill them? Jesus said it: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

The would-be executioners that Jesus confronted that day knew they needed to put down their stones. Do we?

Green-Birthday CakeGreen-None

Green-Reg Prison Fare   Green-Big

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David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994
(Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

When in San Francisco in November, I saw this painting at the De Young Museum. It caught my attention—perhaps because it offered a curious contemporary spin on the tried-and-true 19th century trompe l’oeil paintings that surrounded it in the gallery.

If you are not familiar with the term, “trompe l’oeil” is a kind of painting in which the artist tries to “trick the eye” of the viewer into thinking that what you’re looking at is real, not painted. Everything in this type of painting is “life”-size and hyper-realistic so it looks like the objects are just on the other side of the wall, or hanging on the wall of gallery itself. The viewer is confronted with the objects in a much more immediate way than with run-of-the-mill naturalism.

This painting is a little different because we know there is not a hole in the gallery wall that looks out over an expanse of water. And yet, the plastic pitcher and stack of white bread sandwiches is so real you can practically smell the grape juice and bologna. Even as a small image on my computer screen, the painting is conjuring those olfactory memories from my childhood.

But it wasn’t the extreme naturalism that drew my closer look then, or now; it was the allusion to the Eucharist. Not only are the constitutional elements grape and grain, but the white cloth evokes the “corporal cloth” that is used to catch any elements that drop from the paten during the Eucharist.

Because this seems so obvious to me, I was surprised that the label next to the painting mentions nothing of this. But what it does say opens up for me a new way of understanding the Eucharist.

The label explains that Ligare is referencing the juice and sandwiches that are given to people at the homeless shelter where he volunteered. Furthermore, he connects this practice to the Greek notion of hospitality called xenia, a word found inscribed on the stone in the painting. In this way, Ligare expands modern conceptions of hospitality—it’s not just welcoming friends into your own home, it is offering food and shelter to complete strangers as well.

I can’t help but push it one step further. At the Last Supper, when Christ broke bread and poured the wine, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). He was looking at the twelve disciples—the inner circle, his closest friends—yet he told them his death would be for many—the multitude, the unknown, complete strangers.

So, one way of understanding Christ’s sacrificial death may be as a profound act of hospitality. All of humanity—all strangers to God because of being estranged from God—has been given life-giving sustenance.

We’re heading into the long and often lonely journey through Lent. This time, I’ll keep this painting close at hand to remind me of what’s coming. I may have a physical roof over my head, but spiritually I am homeless—empty and desperate. I will be so grateful for Christ’s hospitality in the end of the journey, whenever that may be.

Then, as now, I will drink and eat in remembrance.

 

(Oh… and no, the irony of bologna is not lost on me.)

 

 

Stitching It

October 18, 2014

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960 (Art Institute of Chicago)

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960
(Art Institute of Chicago)

David Wojnarowicz, image from video "A Fire in My Belly," 1986-87 (Fales Library, NYU)

David Wojnarowicz, image from video “A Fire in My Belly,” 1986-87
(Fales Library, NYU)

 

 

 

Whenever I come across any one of these artworks, the other two spring to mind. I have no idea if the artists knew of each others’ work (possible, for two of them) or were referencing each others’ work (doubt it), but nonetheless they are tied together, so to speak.

 

All three artists stitch–into canvas, into dead skin, into living flesh–and the act of stitching seems to be integral to the meaning of the work. Wojnarowicz’s is perhaps the most gruesome–it is his own mouth he closes with yarn–but Salcedo’s is almost as visceral, perhaps because she’s using skin. Comparatively, Bontecou’s seems merely suggestive, but I can’t help seeing flesh and sinew.

But this isn’t like sewing or embroidery or cross-stitch. These stitches evoke sutures, as if a wound is being closed.

 

Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios, 1992

Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios, 1992

Salcedo3

Detail of Salcedo’s work

Salcedo is dealing with wounds–the cultural wounds inflicted by La Violencia in her native Columbia. People were disappeared–here one day, gone the next, with only traces left behind of their existence. These shoes carry, hold, transport the memories of the people that once wore them, and are here buried in the walls, stitched behind pigskin. In a very self-conscious way, she is opening the very wound she closes.

In this way, Salcedo echoes Wojnarowicz, whose stitches do not close a wound at all, but call attention to a culture of silencing that leads to deep psychological pain. He uses his own flesh to locate the hermeutical injustice felt by victims of AIDS in the 1980s. It is not ironic that he had to stitch his mouth closed to finally be heard.

Detail of Bontecou's work

Detail of Bontecou’s work

Operating between and around the other two, Bontecou uses wire to attach recycled canvas to a welded steel frame. The works evoke both machine and flesh, growth and deterioration, cutting and mending. The opening, which is sewn shut in Wojnarowicz’s video, gapes and yawns here. Like with Salcedo’s work, I find myself stepping closer, peering in, wondering what’s in there. Nothing. Black nothingness.

It strikes me that Wojnarowicz is using a slightly different visual idiom–the other two directly reference stitches or sutures, but he sews. Plus, the work is a video, so we see him making the stitches, sewing his mouth shut with blood running down his face. He doesn’t flinch.

Bontecou doesn’t flinch either, in the more metaphorical sense of the word. She does not seem to be referencing either pain or silencing as much as the monstrous. Perhaps it’s because I just finished reading Mary Shelleys’ Frankenstein, but these human-made creatures seem to reach off the wall to swallow me whole.

It is the visual, visceral connection between these artworks that amplifies the power of each. I leave feeling heavy, saddened, burdened. There are so many wounds in this world.

Advent is right around the corner. Come, Jesus, come. And quick.