In the U.S., there are 86 gun deaths a day. So visitors to the Maine College of Art's ICA are informed at the outset of UNLOADED, a traveling exhibition of works from national artists on the theme of guns in America. Guest-curated by Susanne Slavick, an artist, curator, and professor at Carnegie Mellon, the show consists of 26 artists (including a piece by a six-woman collective) across a spectrum of media and concepts illustrating America's complicated obsession with firearms.
We get photography from the Heartlands (Nina Berman), cuddly pillow versions of firearm forms (Natalie Baxter), and weird phallic movie gifs in a show that covers a good amount of terrain both geographic and philosophical. And though its well anchored in Slavick's broad research into gun deaths in all the corners of America, the show manages to have some fun without going fully didactic or clamping down on an ideological position.
Yes, the art is here is critical, and the artists have clearly taken a position. But nothing would illustrate the cultural divide between Americas than a high-concept gallery art show that explicitly shames gun owners, so most artists wisely work accessibly.
James Duesing - Dog, 2014; HD video loop derived from a GIF.
Not all gun owners, for example, are big fans of nuance. And so James Duesing's Dog, an animated gif of a grinning, crudely drawn hot dog-shaped figure endlessly spinning a phallic gun between its legs, gets the job done there. Slightly more clever are Baxter's pillows, looking like large, droopy Fraggles mounted on the wall. But equally simple is Renee Stout's "Baby's First Gun" (1998), a diminutive firearm assemblage in a tiny ornate box of soft, feminine tones. Likewise the very effective "A City Without Guns," Jennifer Nagle Myers's collection of found wooden sticks with angles naturally resembling the shape of firearms, which beautifully (and with barely a hint of ideology) reminds us how easily kids stumble upon gun fantasies in their youth.
Renee Stout - Baby’s First Gun, 1998; mixed Media; 2.5 x 6 x 4.75 inches closed, 1.75 x 6 x 9.75 inches open.
For dealing in such heavy and politicized matter, the show handles humor well. Dadpranks is a collective of six women whose primary medium is a shared Tumblr blog called Echinacea Plus, Cold Defense. Their inclusion here, a photo of a custom-made Cabela's coffee mug with its handle a replicate of a pistol's grip, is one of the show's most brilliant and effective pieces. As told to us by Dadpranks (Lauren Goshinski, Kate Hansen, Isla Hansen, Elina Malkin, Nina Sarnelle, and Laura A. Warman), "living in a home with guns increases the risk of homicide by 40 to 170 percent and the risk of suicide by 90 to 460 percent." As they work in the realm of everyday objects and the nostalgic, traditionally unchallenged domain they inhabit, the Dadpranks version of a forest green Cabela's mug – itself an object that conjures masculinity – would seem like a gun rights advocate's ideal holiday gift. At least until, the artists point out, the realization that the gesture of lifting it to one's lips to sip from it is the same gesture required to hold a revolver to one's own cheek.
Mel Chin - Cross for the Unforgiven: 10th Anniversary Multiple, 2012; 1 of 2; AK-47 assault rifles (cut and welded); 54 x 54 x 3 inches
Mel Chin's harrowing "Cross for the Unforgiven" is a symbol of eight AK-47s assault rifles welded into a large symmetrical form, which the Houston-raised artist sees as a symbol akin to a Maltese Cross. Their barrels joined together in perfect right angles, Chin notes that his treatment of the guns have rendered them inoperable, lending a quiet, gravelike solemnity to the otherwise foreboding piece. And Pittsburgh's Devan Shimoyama's entry (titled "You will have to sing. Paper won't hold the wound I leave," oil, glitter, and colored pencil on canvas) is richly affecting, a hybrid narrative/portrait painting the artist describes as a response "to the vulnerability of black male bodies: specifically, his own and those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown."
Some works are purely documentarian. In her entries, Pittsburgh-based artist Vanessa German shines some light on Love Front Porch, a model art effort she's taken up at her abode in Homewood, Pennsylvania, a neighborhood recently described on the Rachel Maddow Show as "one of America's most violent neighborhoods." German's images, including the mixed-media sculpture "Unwhipped," render into form both the culture of survival and the makerspace she and others keep as one of the art-based safe havens in her neighborhood. In a different America, Nina Berman's Homeland series documents how gun ownership is woven into the cultural fabric of white rural neighborhoods at the earliest youth. Her image Human Target Practice, All America Day, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, USA (2006) finds a uniform-clad Marine crouching to help a pre-adolescent boy hoist an assault rifle, with onlookers in the distance. Context aside, the moment Berman captures between the two is tender, familial and intimate. Another shot, from the Come and Take It Rally at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas (from 2013), Berman finds gun rights advocates in full cosplay, decked in masks, flags, and Captain America leotards with gaudy semiautomatics draped over their torsos.
Other works struggle to convey their idea within the gallery setting. Don Porcella's "Guns," a set of colored pipe cleaners formed into a shape and packaged into a child-ready baggie like candy, is clever but forgettable. Joshua Bienko's hyper-referential mash-up nods at Picasso's Guernica, an advertisement for the 2010 rom-com action film Killers starring Ashton Kutcher, and the foppish German art dealer David Zwirner, but doesn't yield much beyond an insider's wink.
This show won't convert many folks – though it is interesting to wonder how many fine art gallery-going NRA supporters hang out in Portland these days. But it's a fine use of the space and a return to the bold, daring exhibitions that make the ICA space one of the most challenging spaces to see art in Portland.
"UNLOADED," mixed media group exhibition | Through April 14 | Reception April 7 5-8 pm | ICA at MECA, 522 Congress St., Portland | www.meca.edu
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