Guns in the United States kill about as many people as car accidents. The numbers are so massive that newspapers can’t keep up. L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy attempted to cover every homicide in L.A. County in a single year, but the task proved impossible.
But there is more to understanding firearms culture than counting gun deaths. And that is the heart of curator Susanne Slavick’s traveling exhibition “Unloaded.” The show features 22 artists from across the country whose work discusses both the historic and social issues surrounding gun ownership. The gun is considered as a symbol for every area of life it touches — from teen suicide to the historic obsession with “protecting the Second Amendment,” from neighborhoods devastated by crime to the militarization of civilian life and mass shootings. Certain artists explore the gendering of guns and the centrality of guns to American childhood. Seemingly innocent water guns, for instance, become another lens through which to view the ubiquity of firearms. None of the perspectives presented in the show endorse the gun.
In Lauren Adams’ sculpture “Granny Smith & Wesson” (2003), from her series “Domestic Disturbance,” a tiny footstool is upholstered with a hand-painted fabric of flowers and miniature pink Smith & Wesson Co. handguns. Yet the design is quaint and ornate — this design would easily blend with a domestic setting, speaking to the reality of how guns become seamless parts of many homes.
Photographer Nina Berman documents the building up of the American “Security State” post-Sept. 11 through 2008 in her series “Homeland.” As with a video game, war and play become one in Berman’s “Human Target Practice, All America Day, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, USA” (2006). The image features a boy who looks about 9 years old holding an assault rifle with the help of a soldier wearing a red beret and camouflage, and aiming at something in the distance.
Other pieces are more focused on guns as an everyday reality. Artist Vanessa German lives in Homewood, a Pittsburgh neighborhood that is one of America’s most violent. In her self-portrait “Unwhipped” (2012), she poses on a porch wearing a red-and-white scarf over her mouth, vigilante-style. In her left hand she holds an array of objects: an antique sculpture of a black child with a gun atop his head and a reflector on his belly, which stands atop a red-painted horse, which stands on top of a coffee tin. This photo, taken on a porch, may be from her own Love Front Porch, a space she created for neighborhood kids to congregate and make art. Eventually the porch grew to become ARThouse, an organization that provides even more space for safety and support. German resists the power of guns, countering them with nonjudgmental love. In another project, she distributed 1,000 yard signs with the text: “Stop Shooting: We Love You.”
Jennifer Meridian’s smart installation “A City Without Guns” (2014) organizes sticks on the wall that look vaguely like guns — or rather, we are conditioned to read them as such. Don Porcella uses pipe cleaners, a common crafting item, twisting them into mini-guns and dropping them into a plastic pouch colorfully painted with the word GUNS. They look like bags of candy a kid might buy from the corner store after school.
The eerie, dark playfulness of the water gun appears in a work by Jinshan, titled “I also like hijacking” (2008), a digital print featuring the squirting toy with a plane flying in the background. The use of the word “like” makes the image seem as vague as the “like” button on Facebook. In James Duesing’s “Dog” (2014), the gun becomes symbolic of phallic power, but it’s goofy and dumb — it’s a black-and-white GIF of a hot dog wearing glasses and a big grin as it twirls a gun between its legs.
But no work in the show speaks more strongly to the social and cultural indoctrination of gun imagery and violence at an early age than Renee Stout’s “Baby’s First Gun” (1998), a boxed assemblage that includes a miniature gun emblazoned with the letters “ABC.” There’s also a cutout drawing of a young girl wearing a pink, rose-covered dress with fortune cookie text at her feet: “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it.” This is a strong, if not at times visually overwhelming show that covers every angle of guns in America.
The show can feel difficult and despairing. For that reason, MCAD provides gallery-goers with a ton of information about guns in Minnesota. A table adjacent to the exhibition is stocked with publications such as “Shots Fired” and pamphlets such as “Kids and Guns: A Guide to Keeping Your Children and Teens Safe” from the organization Protect Minnesota.