The Austin Chronicle
May 18, 2006
“Justice for All? Artists Reflect on the Death Penalty”
Do you remember the Garbage Pail Kids Trading Cards? I think it was in the early Eighties that their disgustingly caricatured personas were all the rage. While kids traded “Sicky Vicky,” a goopy girl who looked to have been covered in slime, snot, and I don’t want to know what else, for “Up Chuck,” and “Potty Scotty” for “Virus Iris,” I guess the concept of anti-role models was being worked out in the social exchange of one disgusting character for another.
For some reason, I thought about the Garbage Pail Kids Trading Cards after seeing Annie Feldmeier Adams’ entry in the Texas Moratorium Network’s “Justice for All?” show on the death penalty. Yet where the Garbage Pails featured sticky, dirty characters, each of Adams’ “Last Supper Trading Cards” shows only a plain, very human mouth, a number, a date, and a stark printout of what looks like a menu, listing something like liver and onions, mashed potatoes, gravy, and whole milk. While even after reading the card, I don’t know who No. 247 was or what he did to be executed on June 13, 2001, I do know that he wanted old-fashioned comfort food at his last meal. I also know that No. 247 is dead now, and his card can’t be traded for anything other than what it was.
The human detail illustrated through the tight graphic design of Adams’ cards is part of the sentiment that runs through “Justice for All?,” which was juried by Annette Carlozzi, head curator of the Blanton Museum of Art’s Contemporary and American Art collection; Lora Reynolds of Lora Reynolds Gallery; and Malaquias Montoya, artist and professor at UC Davis, with assistance and support from Scott Cobb from the Texas Moratorium Network, and Gallery Lombardi curator and Chronicle arts writer Rachel Koper. Including pieces from artists worldwide, some of them longtime activists, others newcomers to the issue, and some death row inmates themselves, the show is nothing short of powerful. While the exhibition is not the overt political parade it could be, it is like artfully asking us to see the full-scale slaughter of the chicken we usually find so nicely dissected and Saran-Wrapped at HEB and to come to terms with what it takes to eat dinner as usual.
The show is not without humor (Bush gets a jab or two) and also not without provocation. Austin artist Michelle Mayer provides a video installation of another last meal, projected down on an injection bed supporting the tin dinner tray. While the tedium of eating becomes the urgency of living, the work leaves its viewer with an aching stomach unrelated to food consumption. Poor Boy, by Melinda Wing of Phoenix, is a monotype image, three times changed over the piece with the quote “poor boy / you bound to die” seemingly handwritten across the center frame. The piece implicitly references all the statistics showing how death does not come equally to the poor and the minorities who are tried in capital punishment cases, reminding the viewer that the “poor boy” quote is as much statistically more probable as it is colloquial.
While shows like this can often preach to the choir, their power and poignancy give art its legs and give all of us an opportunity, as “responsible” voters (in all senses of the word), to think through what it means to be the only industrialized nation practicing capital punishment. “Justice for All?” is a must for anyone with strong feelings, mixed feelings, or even few feelings on the death penalty.