At first glance, Jackie Black’s artwork appears to be fairly straightforward.
Take, for example, her image of a simple cheese sandwich photographed on a white plate against a black background.
It looks innocuous enough and doesn’t seem to make a social or political statement one way or the other.
But take a closer look, and you’ll soon notice the title of the image and the description that accompanies it.
Name: Charles William Bass
Executed: March 12, 1986
Last Statement: “I deserve this, tell everyone I said goodbye.”
It’s at this point that the work takes on a much more complicated and multi-dimensional meaning. Black’s photographs are, in fact, last suppers in the truest sense of the term — images of final meals requested by death row inmates before going to the gallows — or the lethal injection table.
The series is called “Last Meal,” and Black, who lives and works on Shelter Island, created the work between 2001 and 2003. Each photograph is accompanied by the details of the inmate’s case, including final words. But not every death row case she documented could be photographed.
For example, the last meal request of Odell Barnes Jr., executed March 1, 2000, was “Justice, equality, world peace,” while Robert Anthony Madden, executed May 28, 1997, asked that his final meal “be given to a homeless person.” His request was denied. In her art, in place of a photograph of a meal, their final requests are documented in white text on a black background.
“I grew up in the South, and one would always see a newspaper article about a pending execution and the last meal — it was a piece of reporting that was always there,” said Black, who recently sat down for an interview in her Shelter Island studio to talk about the work. “It’s an interesting way to look at capital punishment — through this meal. It’s something everyone could relate to and seemed so poignant.”
After creating the meals and photographing them, Black decided to set out to educate herself about the death penalty and the many issues surrounding it.
“I went into it with a blank slate. I didn’t know enough about it,” she said. “The more engaged I got in the subject and learned, the more I saw how very unfair the system is.
“All of the executed people are poor, some of them obviously had mental issues, so it’s very unfair,” Black said. “I’m a strong anti-death penalty person now.”
All 23 “Last Meal” images are on view in “Artists Choose Artists,” an exhibition that opened last weekend at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. Black is one of 14 East End artists who were selected to take part in the show by seven guest jurors, distinguished artists in their own right. Tony Oursler, who currently has a multi-media piece on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, selected Black as one of his two artists for the exhibition. His other choice, Marianne Weil, is a sculptor who lives and works in Orient on the North Fork.
While Black’s 23 images are stark statements when seen side by side, one of the most intriguing aspects of “Last Meal” are the points that Black makes in the work, including the statistics detailing where the United States falls in terms of the number of executions it performs per year in relation to other countries around the world.
“The year I did this, we were not far behind China, and ahead of Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ve really progressed much at all. We don’t seem to be learning from the past.”
In addition to “Last Meal,” also on view in “Artists Choose Artists” are six images from “The Gun Show,” a series Black created between 2011 and 2015.
“In a way they’re related,” said Black of the two series. “In a way, they’re about crime and punishment. I tend to do dark themes.”
She explained that the guns pictured belong to a friend on Shelter Island who has a large collection.
“I stuck with old school revolvers and such,” Black said. “They’re all very iconic guns and very collectible for some reason. I did like them as shapes and objects, they’re very well made and beautifully crafted things.”
Perception makes all the difference and seeing just one image of a gun among a series of diverse photographs tells a much different story than seeing several guns grouped together, as they are in this show. Black notes that though she was really attracted to the weapons due to their shape and form, she readily concedes that how they’re presented causes them to be perceived in a much different, and more threatening, manner.
“I don’t know if they’re being glamorized, but they definitely have a sense of danger,” Black admitted. “I think they’re tricky and provocative. I wasn’t trying to be — I was just dealing with form.”
Another tricky, yet deceptively simple, piece of art by Black in the “Artists Choose Artists” show is a few lines of text typed out on a plain piece of paper. This work, one of her latest, resembles a handbill of the sort you might see in a shop window or on a public bulletin board for someone looking for a babysitter or a roommate, with tear-off tabs at the bottom.
But Black’s flyer reads, “Remember Sandra Bland,” the Texas woman who died in police custody in 2015 after a traffic stop. In something of a social experiment, Black notes that in recent months, she has posted the flyer in public locations around Shelter Island only to return later to find the whole thing missing.
“For some reason, people find it somewhat provocative,” Black said. “But it’s not a black and white issue, I’m not anti-cop. Unfortunately, it has been interpreted that way.
“The bigger problem is not black and white, it’s dialogue and free speech.”
With her participation in the “Artists Choose Artists” show, Black has been buoyed by the enthusiasm — and the dialogue — that she’s experienced since last weekend’s opening at the museum.
“I think the response was really positive. People were really engaged and it’s a good feeling,” Black said. “The Parrish show is a nice stepping stone and a great opportunity. It’s the biggest venue I’ve been in. I’ve made some connections with several of the other artists and plan to get in touch with others and share thoughts.
“It’s really nice to be recognized by the Parrish,” she added. I think it’s a great show and a great idea.”
On Friday, January 13 at 6 p.m., Black, Marianne Weil and Almond Zigmund will give a gallery talk on their work in “Artists Choose Artists” at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. The exhibition runs through January 16, 2017. For more information, visit www.parrishart.org or call (631) 283-2118.