The dark gray-slate walls specifically painted for the latest exhibit at the Bass Museum of Art create a cocoon-like atmosphere that is not entirely comforting. But once you take in the works from the solo exhibit of Mat Collishaw, you’ll realize that it’s not the color of the rooms that is giving off an eerily beautiful but somber unease.
From a distance, the framed pieces lining two walls in the main room appear to be still lifes from Dutch-era Masters, both in the composition and deep, dark coloring. But they are photographs, and reproductions of the last meals of Texas death-row inmates. If you are unfamiliar with Collishaw, this is a good introduction. Each photograph is based on what real people about to die ordered for their last taste of life. They also often reflect the ethnicity and backgrounds of the inmates. As such, they are heavily laden with political and social commentary. One photograph includes a large meal, with cinnamon rolls, French fries, eggs — that’s what inmate Gary Miller wanted in 2011. Others ordered corn-on-the-cob and ham sandwiches, and one prisoner decided on a mound of dirt. They brought him a small bowl of yogurt instead.
In a sense Collishaw doesn’t stray far from his Renaissance forbearers, whose superbly detailed paintings were deceiving in that they often depicted fruit and flowers on the verge of decay, dead birds and carcasses.
And like in the works of the early Masters, there is a religious undertone to the exhibit. First, there are 13 photographs — a reference to the 12 apostles who once shared a last supper with soon-to-be-crucified Jesus. In a stunning sculpture, Collishaw has combined a large Gothic altarpiece (with video playing in the panels) with blooming flowers, called Gomoria. The sculpture casts lovely bright colors into the darkened museum room and shadows on the floor. But look closely, and these are disturbing, sickly looking flowers imbued with obvious references to sexual organs and venereal disease. Across the space, an actual altar from the museum’s Renaissance collection “faces off” with its opposite; a nice Bass Museum touch.
A side room (also painted dark gray) includes just two sculptures, of more flowers; they are part of Collishaw’s series, Venal Muse. These too reveal lesions, scars and something uncomfortably sexual — not your average flower-shop bouquet.
But then that’s why this exhibit is classic Collishaw, although these recent works are more subtle and lovelier than the art that shot him to fame. Part of the group known as the Young British Artists (YBAs) whose brash, provocative art took the world by storm in the 1990s, Collishaw is a contemporary of stars such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin (a former girlfriend of Collishaw’s whose solo show at MOCA will be that museum’s main draw during Art Basel Miami Beach).
The first Collishaw work that caught the art world’s eye was Bullet Hole, a gruesome close-up reproduction of a bullet hole to someone’s head. (The original photo from a forensic pathology book was most likely a hole made from a pick-ax to a head and not a bullet. In any event, the message is clear: death and decay were early obsessions.) This work was included in the notorious “Sensations” exhibit of the late 1990s, where Hirst showed his shark carcass floating in formaldehyde.