Mat Collishaw and the art of finality at Miami’s Bass Museum of Art

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.

But the art era of shock and awe has lost some of its punch — and the YBAs are no longer so young or controversial. Nonetheless, Collishaw’s “Last Meal on Death Row, Texas” is still provocative and disturbing, but in what feels like a more mature way. Still, as artists from the first scribblers on cave walls to Caravaggio knew, violence and mortality are always close at hand, and will always be integral themes in art.

This exhibit is another example of the Bass coming into its own in a Miami that is growing up. Gone are the days when our museums could rely on a sole director/curator to run the show. The duties of running an organization — and the constant need to fundraise for it — along with visiting artists and fairs and curating every show are just too vast for any single person. Other local museums have split up duties; in the wake of long-time director Bonnie Clearwater’s departure, MOCA will soon have both a director and chief curator. ArtCenter South Florida now also has both a director and chief curator; and PAMM has three fulltime curators plus director. Now, the Bass — under the direction of Silvia Karman Cubina — has brought in Jose Carlos Diaz for the new position of curator of exhibitions.

Diaz started working in Miami at the Rubell Collection, then moved on to Miami Art Museum and finally as curator at Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts before decamping to Liverpool, to work at the Tate Gallery there. His duties will include oversight of the “tc: temporary contemporary” program, an on-going recent project between the museum and the City of Miami Beach to bring temporary sculptures, videos and performances to the neighborhood throughout the year.

One recent August night, for instance, locally based artist Brookhart Jonquil lit candles, a ritual that commemorates both joyful and mournful events. Another local artist, Agustina Woodgate, is currently drawing her Hopscotch installation across the sidewalks around the Bass and Collins Avenue. The chalk will smudge and fade, and so too will the sidewalk sculpture.

Diaz says the museum will also continue to exhibit more decorative and fashion-based works, in the context of its relationship to art, following in the lines of the “Picasso to Koons” jewelry show last spring, which featured jewelry made by famous artists. In 2014, he points out, the museum will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a sprawling show “Gold,” with pieces made by local and international artists exploring gold, in its physical and symbolic sense. Such exhibits will help distinguish the Bass from other institutions in town.

Diaz, who returned to Miami after an almost five-year stint in England, is unabashedly excited about the new adventures he sees possible in a Miami he thinks has changed dramatically even in his five-year absence. “Look, we have curators from all over the globe here now,” he says, expressing the hope that this means we will see art from a variety of places and perspectives, and more of it.