It was an evening to die for. On Saturday, British jewelry designer Stephen Webster hosted a provocative event mixing contemporary art and food in the upstairs gallery above his Rodeo Drive store.
Titled "The Last Supper," it was the West Coast debut of photographs depicting the final meals of death row inmates by fellow Brit (and longtime pal) artist Mat Collishaw, with last meal-worthy victuals cooked up by renowned British chef (and another of Webster's across-the-pond posse) Mark Hix.
The conceptual dinner was the last of three events celebrating Collishaw's work, beginning with a Thursday night exhibition-opening cocktail party at Webster's boutique, followed by a Friday night discussion with all three men at Soho House West Hollywood moderated by longtime mutual friend and artist Tracey Emin.
The framed photo at the top of the stairs set the evening's tone — a spare but glowing still life of a wine bottle and half full glass of wine lighted from somewhere outside of the frame. Beautiful and serene, it became something else when one realized the scene depicts the last meal of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
Ditto for the chilled silver dish of ice cream and partly unwrapped chocolate bars that constituted the final feast of convicted murderer Dobie Gillis Williams, and the artfully arranged silver plates of fried chicken, shrimp and strawberries that were serial murderer John Wayne Gacy’s death row dinner.
“Mat’s [work] has never been shown on the West Coast before,” Webster told the two dozen or so guests seated at long tables, in introducing the artist. “So we’re making a big deal of it — making a meal of it actually.
"My wife and I have three of his pieces and [Mark] Hix has a few pieces in his restaurants, so when we were putting this dinner together, I knew it had to be him.”
Collishaw, considered a key figure in the important generation of British artists who emerged from Goldsmith’s College in the late 1980s, is based in London and his work is part of several permanent collections including Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; and Tate, London.
He works mainly with photography and video, taking inspiration from surrealism and pop culture. His most famous piece is a photograph of a giant bullet hole head wound, taken from a forensic pathology book.
For the series of seven photographs (displayed here as digital transfer prints on goatskin parchment), Collishaw chose to arrange and photograph the final meals in the style of 17th century Vanitas paintings, which he explained were meant to “reflect on the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death.”
He was inspired, he told us, by a feature he’d seen in the Sunday Times 20 years ago. “The pictures were all very gaudy and lit from above. I thought: ‘What if I elevated it to the level of Vanitas paintings, like the Dutch Masters?' ”
The results are all at once intriguing, heartbreaking, beautiful and wholly unsettling.
But Hix’s meal — as well as the eclectic mix of dinner guests — managed to be the perfect counterbalance to the macabre.
Dom Perignon (one of the dinner’s sponsors) poured a vintage 2004 to get things started, and courses included baked potatoes with caviar — paired with glasses of ice-cold vodka — spiny lobster salad; and black truffled cheese toastie with Hudson Valley duck’s liver. For dessert? Absinthe and Champagne, raspberry and gold leaf jellies (that's Brit speak for “gelatins”).
Among those pulling up their chairs to “The Last Supper” were Emin, art collector Kay Saatchi, English model/socialite Poppy Delevingne and actresses Virginia Madsen and Rosamund Pike.
Since the delicious quandary was literally in our faces all night, we were curious about what others might choose for their last morsel before shuffling off this mortal coil.
“My wife might say [I’d have] a toasted cheese sandwich, which it very well could be,” Webster told us. “But I might go for short ribs. I was a vegetarian for 14 years — I’m not anymore — but, if you’ve been a vegetarian for all your life, [expletive] it, go for the short ribs.”
Collishaw went for childhood comfort food. “Egg and chips the way my mum used to make when I was a kid,” he told us. “A fried egg but with a soft yoke so can puncture it with a chip and the yoke runs everywhere.”
The artist went on to explain that the notion of comfort food was, for the most part, a through line in the choice of last meals.
“That lobster is the exception,” he said, pointing to the photograph hanging in the window — a boiled in-shell lobster, plated with clams and shrimp and accompanied by half a loaf of bread (the final feast of convicted murderer Allen Lee Davis). “For most people the first impulse is for the things that brought you comfort as a child — breakfast cereal, ice cream, that sort of thing.”
Mat Collishaw, Last Meal on Death Row, digital transfer prints on goatskin parchment ($5,000 each) will be on display at the 202 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, boutique through Dec. 7.
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