Art review: 'Unloaded' at Space
In “Unloaded,” at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Space gallery, Downtown, images of guns and the consequences of their use are presented from a number of perspectives, although none endorse the instruments as a means to an end.
Featuring the work of 19 artists, the exhibit, says organizer and Carnegie Mellon University art professor Susanne Slavick, is a response to the public health crisis that ongoing gun violence represents in this country.
“I wanted to organize a show that explores the historical and social issues surrounding the availability, use and impact of guns in our lives,” she says.
“Gun ownership and control is a divisive topic in this country,” Slavick says. “The artists in ‘Unloaded' visualize the power of the gun as icon and instrument, the damage it can do and how weapons might be rejected, broken or silenced.”
Thus, all of the works touch upon a host of issues surrounding access to and use of firearms.
For example, Anthony Cervino of Carlisle displays “Gun” and “Grandmother,” two pieces from a series of sculptures that relate gun violence to authority.
“Gun” is a shotgun encased in a block of plastic, and “Grandmother” is a small portrait of a child similarly covered up and confined. In this way, the artist suggests restriction or lack of access to both.
On the back wall of the gallery, Cervino displays a much larger wall assemblage titled “Pieces,” which is a loose grid of abstract gun forms that refer to specific models such as Uzis, bazookas, rifles and Thompson submachine guns, along with those more associated with science fiction.
One half of the installation looks somewhat like British billy clubs with the smooth surfaces and square configuration that simulates guns as if appearing neutral and systemic. While next to them, Jennifer Nagle Myers' “A City Without Guns” is a similar arrangement of sticks and twigs in the general shape of the aforementioned guns suggests child's play.
The latter configuration is especially poignant, harkening back to most males' fascination with guns, and especially the implied power they yield, even as an imaginary substitute.
Not far away, several photographs by Nina Berman from her “Homeland” series depict children at play with toy guns, further underscoring the underlying fascination with guns in our culture.
Taking this fascination to a lighthearted realm, James Duesing's animated GIF “Dog” shows a grinning hot dog character twirling a gun.
This “hot dog” is a double-entendre, a stand-in for a term commonly used to describe “one who performs showy, often dangerous stunts.”
Slavick contends the equation of guns with derring-do and manhood is exploited in the entertainment and gun industries alike.
For example, an advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15, one of the three guns used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, directly appealed to men's machismo with its catch line: “Consider your man card reissued.”
In Duesing's comical rendition of machismo, the sunglasses worn by his gunslinger are but one form of ridicule that undermines such messages.
Also playing off of common terms, Andrew Ellis Johnson's “Rehearsal” is a sculptural version of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” representing the adamant refusal to face the facts on gun violence. It features bookends supporting cast human ears that are plugged by live bullets.
“Despite evidence from countless studies and statistics, we tolerate a government that behaves like the proverbial three monkeys who see, hear and speak no evil against the guns associated with so much damage and death,” Slavick says.
Poetry is the vehicle of choice for Cathy Colman, a writer troubled by the accessibility of guns to the sane and mentally troubled alike.
The title of her poem, “The Last Time I Saw Virginia Woolf,” invokes the English writer who was disturbed by the violence of World War II, suffered from depression, and who committed suicide by drowning herself, sinking into a river, coat pockets filled with stones.
The character in Colman's poem speaks of militias forming in the back woods, the kind that arm themselves as a defense against the meddling of “big government.” The poem's speaker professes to hate “these men with guns” while admitting her desire for the “right weapon” and the “right river.”
She speaks of trauma, mental illness and psychological distress in which homicidal and suicidal impulses merge, of waiting for and loathing the demon of death within. The armed forces in and outside of her psyche have guns, but like Virginia Woolf, she seeks an alternative means, in life or death.
According to Slavick, gun ownership, rights and use are a national issue and a local one.
“Over the prior 10 years, Pittsburgh averaged about 55 gun homicides a year, but that shot up to 71 in 2014,” she says. “I hope the show fosters dialogue and action to reduce the plague of gun violence that affects our whole society, far away and close to home.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.