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Some art and artists abide. Works crop up time and time again. Sometimes it’s as if society has demanded a need for the message; it strikes a chord. Sometimes hype and PR operates to elevate average work above the average median (that’s just how it goes). Sometimes, controversy gets something seen. Sometimes a particular artwork is afforded more attention because of an artist’s prior successes. And sometimes, very occasionally, a piece of art is relevant down through the ages, to all ages, and warrants repeated visits. I saw a Joshua Reynolds at the Legion Of Honor last week. I was captivated. It deserves to be hanging on a wall and still demanding attention 250 years after its paint dried.

Prison-related art is not in the same demand as portraits of rich patrons. Now or in the 17th century. Maybe, then, I am more impressed when a prison-related art project keeps going and going. One such example is Julie Green’s plates painted with the meals of the executed. This is good art and I’d like to share why.

There’s no fixed number of plates and Green plans to continue painting them in memoriam until the U.S. outlaws the death penalty. It goes without saying that every show, just in terms of numbers, is a new show. Also, some venues haven’t enough wall-space for the sheer scope of the project. Green’s The Last Supper: 600 Plates illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates is currently on show at the Block Museum at Northwestern University until August 2015.

“In fifteen years of the project, this show is unprecedented in terms of planning, installing, engagement, and press,” said Green in an email.

She’s not kidding. In the past few weeks, it has done the rounds at Huffington PostWBEZ RadioChicago TribuneWGN RadioChicago BusinessChicago Sun-TimesChicago Tribune- Evanston and the KU Alumni.

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The Last Supper is a project increasing in stature and reputation. Not without discomfort, it does so as more and more people are killed by the state. Needless to say, Green is not a malicious observer of murder. She has rooted The Last Supper in a core activist position; which is to say that she wants to paint herself into obsolescence; she wants to have nothing to push back against. Green wants the injustice of the death penalty gone.

But as the reputation of a piece of art such as The Last Supper grows, so too does the responsibility to deliver perfectly-pitched programming/discussion around each exhibit. When I have curated in the past I have not always succeeded in achieving this — mostly due to scarce time and resources. Great programming often relies on multiple partners and even then it is a mammoth task. For me, fear of not delivering grows proportionately with the responsibility toward, regional and reflexive exhibition programming. Green has named many individuals key to the Block Museum show — she, like most of us, has managed more when assisted by, and in the assistance of, others.

This post isn’t really a reflection on The Last Supper as it is a reflection on what it means when an abolitionist work, or a work with stated political goals, or a anti-prison artwork assumes a momentum that is rapid and big — a momentum characteristic more of the art world than that of the political-activist world.

How an artist responds to such momentum will differ dependent on experience, advise and, yup, the partner(s). Some makers are better at maintaining strong authorial control over their projects. Others are newer to the grooves along which art and art promotion move, and they might be persuaded toward changed elements of the work.

Working with others will almost always increase the audience and the amplification of the message but it’s something that must be exercised consciously. What mouthpieces are in use? Who’s ears are listening? The last thing I want to suggest is that artists with political message should shy away from partnership. Merely, that partnership brings different institutional biographies and political legacies to the fray. Art and politics cannot exist in separate silos and so when art emerges from a political need it must stay true to that need and struggle.

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There are structural forces at work in the art world. Makers need to carry out due diligence to ensure that the politics of their patrons and sponsors are in line with their own. Audiences need to know that occasionally work rears up because of partners’ involvement or championing and not because of an inherent message in the work or of the artist.

Again this is no comment on Green’s work. In fact the amount of travelling The Last Supper has done is daunting and I cannot imagine how Green has managed the “office” tasks and emails alone — let alone the press, the shipping, the installation details, the admin etc. The Last Supper repeatedly appears at US cultural institutions across the nation because it is good art (here’s what I think of bad art). The Last Supper is good because Green’s act of making is devotional; the simplicity of the concept makes the scope of the project not daunting but, paradoxically, familiar; the artist is passionate in talking about the work. The project is living.

It is living and it is growing.

The Last Supper is only going to get bigger. Big can be beautiful. And it is powerful. As it ships, relocates and appears in different venues, we audiences need to handle its political message as conscientiously as the installers do the porcelain plates. There can be no lack of concentration or complacency. This is life and death.

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