At thirty-three feet long, Brad Slaugh’s Feast just barely fits into his studio. It may be the most monumental mural drawing created in Utah in recent years (1998). Pieced together from 48 pastel drawings, the work makes it difficult to achieve optimal viewing distance — even in the artist’s sizable studio. But size isn’t everything. Other aspects of this work speak to its ambition — and genuine grandeur.
Displayed last month at Poor Yorick’s biannual open house, Feast is not just the artist’s masterpiece. It is a paean to epicurism, and also to Utah. Assembling twelve super-sized dinner guests along a makeshift table, the lateral composition and its proximity to the picture plane begs comparison with that other dinner party we all know so well. In contrast to Leonardo’s illusionistic room, Slaugh’s guests are cramped up against a wall, the knots in the veneer screaming of basement rec rooms. Along the left edge, a partial figure in the form of a hand surreptitiously holds out a ham and cheese sandwich. Reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel’s famous ‘Hand of God’ – or perhaps Monty Python’s, it tantalizingly suggests a thirteenth sitter, and flirts with Leonardo’s numerology.
Beyond this, Feast diverges from The Last Supper in important ways. Slaugh’s dinner guests, for instance, are Everyman. They lack the decorum of the apostles and could be anybody’s uncles and aunts, half-brothers and step-moms. Clearly, time has not been kind to them. Their flesh hangs from their bones, perhaps in a nod to Lucien Freud or Eric Fishl. Suggesting the sloth that comes from a lifetime of television viewing, they are signifiers of the downtrodden, the aged and the infirm, and every bit as proletariat as Courbet’s peasants.
Wearing stylistically obsolete clothes, a sense of nostalgia for seventies fashion and furniture emerges. As such, Slaugh pays homage to a generation of folks just ‘making do’ on the fringes of society, trapped in that time machine called Utah. He also toys with their proportions, dwarfing some and enlarging others; creating giants only a Trollhunter could love.
Appropriately, they are faced with the greatest of consolations: a large meal, and the gastronomic catastrophe laid out in front of them adds an element of jouissance to the composition. The table, propped up like the one in Robert Campin’s Merode Altarpiece, displays a cornucopia of processed foods, along with an unconscionable amount of mustard. The gooey and acrid splendor of American condiments flows to but one thing: indigestion. An anathema to Mormon restraint and sensibility, we are but a small step away from Francis Bacon’s open carcasses. And then there’s the ham and cheese sandwich, hardly the stuff of Passover meals.
Surprisingly, Slaugh informs me that the sitters would self-identify as Mormon. And yet, they challenge the more conventional model, of mission suits and bleached out smiles. This begs the question: are they heirs to the apostles, or perhaps usurpers? As Latter Day Saints, the gospel has fallen to this motley crew to disseminate. Should we be comforted? Concerned? There may be no greater question facing Utahns today.
While situating this dilemma in modern-day Utah, and infusing it with a more universal, tragicomic humanism, Feast becomes Leonardo’s legacy. Unlike the Last Supper, which has been a stable fixture in Milan for half a millennium, Feast is still in search of a home, itself a drifter in the land of Zion.
Alexandra Karl was educated in Ottawa (BFA), Munich (MA) and Cambridge (Ph.D), where she wrote a dissertation on the role of Darwinism in 19th Century German painting. She has been reviewing the Visual Arts in Utah since 2012 and is a proud member of AICA. She was a lecturer in the Humanities Department at Utah Valley University from 2017-2019. Links to her essays can be found at www.alexandra-karl.com.