GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — To say that gun violence is an affliction of American society is a radical understatement, whether you go by the statistics or the frequency of mass shooting incidents. Many artists have attempted to engage with this issue, from gallery shows to web projects. Susanne Slavick, an artist and professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, organizes group shows in an effort to bring an activist viewpoint into contact with a museum-going population. UNLOADED is one of her most recent shows, originally organized for SPACE in Pittsburgh and currently at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids.
The show presents work by 20 artists, including Slavick herself, many of them hailing from Slavick’s home base of Pittsburgh, although a variety of national and international artists are present. The show balances a mixture of approaches to the subject — some quite literal and didactic, others more playful and open-ended. Several works on display directly employ guns as the base material of the art object, including a mandala-like wall hanging by Mel Chin, “Cross for the Unforgiven: 10th Anniversary Multiple” (2012), comprised of eight cut and welded AK-47 assault rifles — a reprise of an earlier 2002 work. There were more than 50 school shootings in the United States between the years 2002 and 2012, and yet Chin was able to make a bulk purchase of eight AK-47s without any degree of scrutiny, just as easily in 2012 as in 2002. In interviews about his work, cited by UICA Exhibitions Curator Heather Duffy, it seems significant to Chin that his piece literally decommissions eight assault rifles (twice), removing them from active use — a theme echoed in Anthony Cervino’s “Composition with Redacted Objects” (2014), which obscures a hunting rifle (and other found objects, including a framed portrait) by encasing its barrel in a black box.
Another kind of visual redaction is present in Cervino’s work, “Pieces” (2006), which at first glance looks like a wall-mounted grid of abstracted, black plastic shapes, which might imitate weaponry. But the formalized arrangement of these objects hint at another association — Cervino has scaled up the plastic armature housing the gun accessories that accompany an action figure. The guns exist only suggestively, in the elided spaces between these shapes.
Cervino’s work is mirrored diametrically across the main gallery, in Jennifer Nagle Myers’s “A City Without Guns” (2014–ongoing). This is a second wall-mounted matrix of objects, in this case a set of wooden sticks, twigs, and branches that roughly convey an armory, as might be improvised by children at play. Myers’s title seems to suggest that even in the absence of literal guns, we are quick to find proxy objects to play out our violent impulses. “Before guns,” Duffy speculated, during a walking tour of the exhibit, “kids probably just pretended sticks were swords.”
The sense of crossover between gun culture, child’s play, and role modeling crops up several times in the exhibit; directly adjacent to Myers’s piece is a quiet little work, “Baby’s First Gun” (1998) by Renee Stout, which juxtaposes an archaic tin gun toy against a cookie-cut-out effigy of a smiling black girl in a pink dress, inside a white-washed wooden box. “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it,” reads a fortune cookie missive at the girl’s feet, its somber proclamation flanked by two little graphic smiley faces, whose expressions match that of the main figure. In the upstairs gallery, “Guns” (2014) by Don Porcella displays ambiguous objects made of pipe cleaners inside a plastic dollar-store type bag with the colorful hang-tag label, “GUNS.”
Porcella’s piece hangs adjacent to a row of signs, installed along a wall of windows, of the type usually seen stuck in people’s lawns advocating for local political figures. They are the work of Vanessa German and part of a project called Love Front Porch that she began in her Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood. The signs read “Stop Shooting <3 <3 <3 We Love You”; German has made and distributed 1,000 signs bearing this and a second message, “No Guns <3 <3 <3 Keep Summer Fun,” around her neighborhood and Pittsburgh in general. Her intention is to find positive and loving ways to plead for an end to gun violence, which directly affects her neighborhood, rather than create a judgmental edict. At UICA, the piece is directly across the street from central police headquarters, and one cannot help but wonder if there was a missed opportunity to direct at least one or two of those signs to be outward facing — not that the general rise in police shootings implicates the Grand Rapids police force specifically, but in light of national trends, it is a message that bears communicating.
Drawing connections between the thought-provoking work on display and everyday realities of gun violence in American life is like shooting fish in a barrel. There hangs the greater question regarding the impact such work has on the actual incidence of gun violence, but like many forms of protest and intervention, the work of artists to support social movements and influence thinking can be difficult to gauge. One wonders how much overlap exists between the museum-going public and gun owners — although Michigan is an open-carry state, people are at least discouraged from bringing their guns directly to the museum. But, as is conveyed by images from a photo series by Nina Berman, which captures Americans in environments that celebrate guns, they are a highly normalized and venerated part of our culture. Trying to separate Americans and guns — or, one might argue, senseless violence from human society — is a sticky business, and UNLOADED is just one attempt at cease-fire in a long road to disarmament.
UNLOADED continues at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (2 Fulton St W, Grand Rapids, Mich.) through May 15.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Michigan was not an open-carry state. This is incorrect. Michigan is an open-carry state.