Artist Robert Priseman to Deliver the Lecture "No Human Way to Kill: Painting the American Execution"



March 18, 2014

Rachel Rogol, 413-542-2295


Amherst, MA - British painter Robert Priseman will deliver the lecture "No Human Way to Kill: Painting the American Execution" in Amherst College's Stirn Auditorium, followed by a gallery talk in the Mead Art Museum, on Friday, March 28, at 4:30 p.m.  


The lecture is tied to a series of Priseman paintings and drawings on view at the Mead, which depict machines and contraptions used to carry out executions. Five large-scale oil-on-linen paintings present methods of execution used in the United States: Electric Chair, Gas Chamber, Hanging Chamber, Firing-Squad Restraint Chair, and Lethal Injection. Twelve pencil-on-paper drawings, completed earlier as studies for the paintings, show types of execution that have been used worldwide.


"The artworks take on a life of their own," says Bettina Jungen, senior curator at the Mead, "detached from the horror of the situation they represent. The fine lines of the drawings create structures of almost ethereal beauty, while the colors and impasto of the paintings produce a tense and eerie atmosphere in which the threat of execution looms."


The works were donated to the Mead in 2012 in honor of Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. Sarat publishes widely on legal and moral issues surrounding capital punishment, and teaches a course at Amherst College called "America's Death Penalty." His article "Botched Executions Undermine Death Penalty," published in the Providence Journal in January of this year, was written in response to the 26-minute-long death by lethal injection of Ohio prisoner Dennis McGuire, a convicted murderer, earlier that month. McGuire's adult children claimed that the execution, in which a new combination of chemicals resulted in the unexpectedly prolonged death, constituted torture. Sarat's book Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty is due out in April.


The death penalty remains controversial in the United States. There have been calls to move the Boston Marathon bombing trial out of Massachusetts, where capital punishment is not allowed, and many question the constitutionality of executing inmates determined to be intellectually disabled, defined as having an IQ below 70. It's also not unusual for new information to surface - such as DNA evidence - exonerating death-row inmates. In mid-March of this year, for instance, new information led to the release of a Louisiana man who had been on death row for nearly 30 years.


The death penalty has not been in use in the United Kingdom since 1964, having been abolished entirely in 1998. Abolition of capital punishment is a precondition for membership in the European Union.


Priseman lives in a small town in the east of England. He studied aesthetics and art theory at the University of Essex, and began his career as a portrait artist carrying out commissioned work. Sitters included Queen Elizabeth and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Priseman later completed several series of works focused on places and events. Projects from this period include Hospital (2004-2005), The Francis Bacon Interiors (2007), and Nazi Gas Chambers (2008-2009). The No Human Way to Kill paintings date to the years 2007-2008.  


With his most recent project, titled Fame, Priseman returned to portraits. Fame consists of 100 celebrity portraits painted on 18th- and 19th-century religious icons - the wooden panels depicting saints in Eastern Christian churches. The Fame celebrities all have in common a tragic death by suicide or other self-destructive means such as drug overdose. Featured celebrities include Jim Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Marilyn Monroe, and Ernest Hemingway. Fame opened in London in November 2013, and in New York City last January.


Priseman's lecture in Stirn Auditorium, adjacent to the Mead Art Museum, is free and open to the public. Professor Sarat will lead a discussion immediately after, followed by a reception in the museum galleries.  


Robert Priseman's drawings and paintings are part of the Mead's spring exhibition, New Arrivals: Modern and Contemporary Additions to the Collection, on view through June 29.


The Mead Art Museum houses the art collection of Amherst College, spanning 5,000 years and encompassing the creative achievements of many world cultures. An accredited member of the American Association of Museums, the Mead participates in Museums10, a regional cultural collaboration. The museum and its gift shop-café are open year-round Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The museum offers extended hours during the academic term, staying open until midnight on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday.  

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