Mat Collishaw: Last Meal on Death Row, Other Criteria, London


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The Independent Culture

When the idea of 17th-century still-life painting swims into the mind's eye, we usually find ourselves in the grip of one of two moods, celebration or a kind of doleful solemnity.

Still-life means great spilling bouquets of flowers and perhaps a brace of pendant gamebirds. Or we might see a table top on which a skull sits, beside a book and perhaps a candle.

The second of these two options is the imaginative demesne of Mat Collishaw, an exact contemporary of Hirst and other YBAs. For some years, Collishaw has been interested in exploring the vexed moral isue of the aestheticisation of violence.

Four years ago, at a gallery in north London, he projected ghostly, flickering, come-and-go images of the grisly Beslan school siege onto dark walls. Today his project is to marry the idea of still life with last suppers on death row. What meal would you choose to die for? Would your taste be spartan or gluttonous?

Collishaw has researched some meals taken by notorious prisoners, almost all of them American. Gary Gilmour, about whom Norman Mailer wrote a great novel, chose a burger in a seeded roll, an oyster, two cups of coffee, four hard-boiled eggs and what looks like a squat, craggy loaf of walnut bread.

Here, as elsewhere in this show (there are seven meals on display in all), the lit scene is engulfed by a darkness suggestive of the gravity of imminent dissolution. The foodstuffs are massed in the centre of a plain wooden table, and they serve as a series of displaced portraits of their consumers.

The feel is old-masterish. The items are lit in such a way that they look rather sumptuous. A lobster seems to deserve such an accolade. But what of this Coke can?

These are photographs, but they are photographs which aspire to the condition of paintings, printed on goat skin, so that each one has some texture. They sit, deeply recessed, within fairly heavy black frames. An accompanying sheet of paper gives you the story of each one of the prisoners, as if to emphasise the grisly nature of the project.

We are accustomed to regarding certain kinds of still life – all those glorious Dutch flower paintings, for example – as pure visual spectacle and little more. This is still life hitched to the wagon of very particular stories, and all of them exceedingly unpleasant. Adolf Eichmann managed just half a bottle of best Israeli wine.