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This spring Suzanne Slavick, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University, curated an exhibition at SPACE with a singular theme, guns. On view through April 26th, UNLOADED features 19 artists at a variety of career trajectories from international and national locales both east and west and points between, including Pittsburgh based artists. The topic is approached with a mixture of methods and media encompassing printmaking, painting, sculpture, video and film. Collectively, the work on view either directly illustrates our culture’s obsession with guns via photography, reflects and critiques the pervasiveness of guns and their consequences by reconfiguring common imagery and ideas from the media, or offers personal accounts and reflections of the experience of guns and gun violence.
There are of course many precedents for work connected to guns and gun violence. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, European female artists including VALIE EXPORT, Marina Abramović, and Niki de Saint Phalle each made now iconic performances or photographs with guns. In 1989, American, Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzales Torres’ Untitled (Death by Gun) enumerated the names of 460 people killed by gun violence in just one week. In the 1990s, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s complex Women of Allah series depicted women (including the artist herself) holding guns in alternately seductive, threatening and protective poses. More recently Pedro Reyes’ Disarm (2013) featured self-playing musical instruments made from weapons confiscated from the drug wars in Mexico. The work of the artists included in UNLOADED builds successfully on these kinds of powerful historical and contemporary precedents. For whenever artists attach themselves to a political issue as heady as gun violence, it is crucial that they do not become overly didactic; this kind of approach tends to simplify and lessen the potential effectiveness of the work. Work that is too singularly focused feels like a flat one liner, especially because the issue itself is usually so dominant. Intelligent audiences want to be provoked, to see the problem through a different lens; no one wants to be preached to nor have their arm twisted, or be hit with cheap slogans or rhetoric, causing the work to become mere cliché.
Many artists contributed thoughtful and engaging work to UNLOADED. In Jennifer Nagle Meyers’ nuanced piece, A City Without Guns (2014 – ongoing), the artist collected branches and sticks naturally shaped like guns (perhaps recalling Claes Oldenburg’s legendary Ray Gun collection) and mounted them in an oval arrangement on the wall. The piece establishes the dialogue between nature and culture, calling to mind hunter/gatherer societies. Obviously, when we think of guns, we associate them with culture and the human-made, so when we see Meyers’ ‘natural guns’ they are no longer instruments of destruction. Instead, they become more about environment as we look at the shape, color and the type of wood and its innate aesthetic qualities. Like mimesis in reverse, Meyers transformed these sticks and branches into abstracted things of beauty while also imitating manufactured objects, a parallel to how gun culture fetishizes guns.
In Ungun of 2013, Jennifer Fenlon’s animated short projected film, the artist appropriated odd, glitch imagery of guns and sound clips from the commercial film industry to create a syncopated dirge-like assault on the senses. Amid the mesmerizing barrage of repeated images, sayings and sound samples—who’s the bitch now—a revolver holds six bullets—the repetition of machine gun fire reminds us of the seductive qualities and film’s inherent capability to manipulate. Ungun capitalizes on our familiarity with commercial movies and efficiently so because of its ability to blur the line between embracing the media’s love affair with guns and violence or its opposite—repulsion—by simply distilling and reflecting this strategy. Fenlon’s tightrope act teeters between the glorification and the denunciation of gun violence, forcing the viewer to choose between either meaning. The final result is perhaps ultimately dependent on what side of the fence one stands.
Ostensibly a one liner is all James Duesing needed for his HD video loop, Dog (2014), a projected animated gif, featuring a line drawing of an erect, smiling ‘hot dog’ wearing dark sunglasses and standing on pencil thin legs. Shaped like the letter P, the figure’s pistol/penis twirls around and around in a continuous loop between his legs. Here the use of humor effectively disarms the viewer and yet also uncovers something more sinister beneath the seemingly innocent funniness of Duesing’s Dog.
Photography plays a major role in the exhibition. Nina Berman, Casey Li Brander and the artist cooperative Dadpranks’ work is displayed along the freshly painted red (think blood) wall at the back of the gallery, where on a first look the artists’ work appears to take on the form of documentary photography. Here we see a record and reflection of the intense relationship certain parts of our culture have initiated with guns. In Berman’s color photograph, Human Target Practice, All America Day, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, USA (2006), we are faced with a smiling soldier teaching a grinning young boy how to fire an automatic weapon. In Destiny Fulfilled (2012), Brander captures a young female (herself) wearing a Destiny’s Child tee shirt in front of a wall of guns, holding an automatic weapon and a small poster of a menacing hyena with bullet holes in it—the target of her practice. Next a digital photograph by Dadpranks asks the viewer to take a seat at an otherwise ordinary kitchen table in Echinacea Plus, Cold Defense (2015). There, a Cabella’s mug with a pistol for a handle, beckons for your grip on it. With and without irony, these photographic works demonstrate the deeply rooted pro-gun culture in our country, an observation that does not necessarily demand an overt critique on the artists’ part. What you see is what you get, regardless of whether or not some of these photographs were staged.
The most powerful, poignant work in the exhibition came in the form of text from Vanessa German. Unlike many of the artists who use the subject of guns as a starting point for the art making process, German’s work was much closer to home, literally. Here, her first person written account about an incident in her neighborhood, Homewood, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA, where someone was shot on the sidewalk just outside her house, reveals most effectively the negative consequences of gun violence. Below is a passage from a post on May 23, 2014.
i can’t handle loud sounds, tire screeches or screaming. and there is sorrow i feel at the center of my chest that is just there. i think about how unprepared we all were. my neighbors. the kids whose parents didn’t make them just stay in the house when they saw what happened. and how the trauma seems to keep unfolding. and the police said that they have counselors for this. but i don’t know about that.
This compelling monologue of German’s inner thoughts is chilling. There is no mediation between the artist and the audience—no opportunity to twist, veil or reconfigure, or to create a new message. Her thoughts are the message, authentically encapsulating the terror of gun violence. The honesty of German’s account is pure, and I wish she would have spoken this text as well so the reader could hear her voice as they read the passages.
Along with this kind of engaging work, art world luminaries Mel Chin and Adrian Piper further elevate the exhibition’s profile. It is a polished, handsome show. But, ultimately, it boils down to the question of whether or not in this day and age art and artists can positively and effectively change our culture’s obsession with guns and gun violence. What is the purpose of making art about guns or gun control? Who are the artists and curator hoping to reach? And what type of influence will they have? Guns are pervasive in our culture. Like Vanessa German, many of us are already sorely aware of the devastating consequences that result when guns are used flagrantly and irresponsibly.
The NRA, gun manufacturers and the military each exert substantial influence on the production and distribution of guns; the influence of powerful gun lobbyists is felt both here at home and worldwide. Moreover, mainstream media plays a huge role in both glorifying and sometimes also critiquing (although the latter occurs all too seldom) the place of guns in our culture. What, then, are the odds that the work in UNLOADED will impact positive change regarding gun control, and to what degree is this endeavor part of the artists’ goals? If in fact artists genuinely want to make an impact on gun legislation, the proliferation of guns in our culture, and gun violence, perhaps this likelihood would increase if artists became activists. Is the work on view in UNLOADED attempting to enlighten or convince its audience to see the issue from a different perspective and possibly change their views? And exactly how deeply do these artists engage with gun control policies in their personal lives? Perhaps it is time for artists to consider stepping outside the comforts of their studios and channel their collective energies into a more radical course of action, one that does not necessarily begin and end with their identity as artists, because the assumption that art in this context has as much relevance to creating change in the broader culture must be questioned.
Free and open to the public, SPACE is located at 812 Liberty Avenue. SPACE is a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. For more information about all gallery exhibitions featured in the Cultural District, please visit TrustArts.org.
The closing reception of UNLOADED is on April 24, 2015 during Gallery Crawl.
Scott Turri hails from suburban Philadelphia but now calls Pittsburgh home, where he divides his labor amongst: making art, writing, and educating. View more articles by Scott Turri.