Amy Elkins: Parting Words | Field Projects, New York City

BY Jesse Dorris, July 1, 2024

One June night in Texas in 1983, Karla Faye Tucker, with her friend Daniel Garrett as an accomplice, murdered Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton in Dean’s apartment. They’d been after Dean’s motorcycle, but instead took the couple’s life with a hammer and a three-foot pickaxe. Tucker, at the time a heroin addict and sex worker, received the death penalty (as did Garrett, who died in prison). During a 14-year stint in prison, Tucker became a born-again Christian, married a prison minister, and found her faith rewarded by calls for release from Pat Robertson, Pope John Paul II, and the EU Parliament. Regardless, she was executed by a lethal injection of sodium thiopental on February 3, 1998, with a crowd of supporters and opponents outside the so-called death house prison in Gatesville, Texas.

Tucker’s face hung on the wall of the Chelsea gallery Field Projects this spring as part of photographer Amy Elkins’s show Parting Words. Elkins has long made work interrogating systems of power. For Parting Words, she spent years amassing the public records of Texas inmates put to death, collecting their mugshots and transcripts of their last words. She then selected a potent phrase from those final statements or noted their death-row refusal to offer one. An algorithm software transformed the grayscale photograph into lines of text, forcing the patterns you see in each portrait. 

Amy Elkins, Leonel Herrera, Execution #58, Age 45, 1993. Courtesy the artist and Field Projects

For the show, Elkins hung the works in three grids across the gallery walls, tight rows of mug-shot word portraits. The installation was overwhelming, suffocating, enraging. Tucker was joined by only one other woman, the so-called Black Widow, Betty Lou Beets, who murdered her fifth husband and possibly other husbands, too. The rest of the exhibition featured portraits of hundreds of men, each of whom the state of Texas murdered as punishment for their crimes since the Supreme Court allowed the return of the death penalty in 1976. 

Amy Elkins, Charlie Brooks Jr, Execution #1, Age 40, 1982. Courtesy the artist and Field Projects

Elkins laid down some rules in making these portraits. Each is the same size, subject to the same black-and-white system of light and shade and font and kerning. The grid of them becomes at once hard to see and impossible to look away from. The eye wants to lose focus, to abstract these prisoners into objects; the mind wants to turn them into data, to number their gender and race and facial features; the heart wants to puzzle out how a man like Billy Crutsinger, the 563rd man Texas had killed as of 2019, went from the ugliness of the murder of a mother and her daughter to the beauty of his final thought: Where I am going everything will be in color. Here in the gallery, though, it’s all shades of grey.