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CLEVELAND, Ohio—There is a specific subset of US identity that holds the Second Amendment especially dear. Our country’s militaristic roots have formed a kind of echo chamber, and these days the prominence and pitch of gun violence in everyday US society has increased to terrifying levels over the past half-century, manifesting in more-than daily mass shootings in 2019, including numerous school shootings, and increasingly, armed border militias spurred by propagandist right-wing media outlets to undertake vigilante-style human rights violations. A show of new works at SPACES asked six artists to research and interpret some key concepts connected with gun violence; America’s Well-Armed Militias features the work and related research of Matthew Deibel (“Stand-your-ground laws”), Michelle Graves (“firearms in schools”), Danté Rodriguez (“U.S./Mexico border militias”), Darius Steward (“Black Panthers”), Jared Thorne (“gangs”), and Nikki Woods (“westward expansion”).
“[We] began our brainstorming and research around this exhibition shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” said SPACES Executive + Artistic Director Christina Vassallo, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I felt that, given our location in a state with rather relaxed gun control laws, it was our imperative to investigate why specific groups of Americans chose to arm themselves, and how they have been treated differently by the law, the media, and other Americans.”
Each concept is presented as a pairing between art object(s) and real-world informational sources — except in the case of Thorne, who presents his research related to “gangs” via a curated set of diptychs that point to the subjective nature of what groups society has classified as such throughout US history. Thorne juxtaposes an image of militarized police with one of Black Lives Matter activists; one of Sitting Bull of the Lakota tribe against an image of the 7th Calvary; the opium magnate Sackler brothers and the Columbian cartel-heading Ochoa brothers — all complicating the question of what it means to organize like-minded people in the name of violence, opportunity, or self-protection.
Thorne’s images zig-zag along the wall, forming a backdrop to an installation by Danté Rodriguez. His series of white, three dimensional cubes run atop a roughly chest-high wall that divides the center of the room, and offer an articulation of his reconnaissance into Arizona border militias. Within the ten eponymous White Blocks (2019) lie a series of objects: a MAGA hat, a Bible, a pocket Constitution, a flag, all visible via the partial excavation of the surrounding plaster. Rodriguez affects a kind of forensic uncovering of these militia artifacts, while in the background, Thorne’s images seem to provide their shadow. This shadow effect is echoed even more viscerally on the adjacent wall, dominated by Graves’s large canvases visualizing firearms in schools via a series of splatter patterns created by shooting through pig hearts — the closest to a human heart, according to the artist — which are suspended midair in clear blocks in front of the canvases.
The literal violence and viscera of Graves’s canvases is bookended on one side by a Homeland Security video demonstrating best practices for pursing an active shooter through a school, and on the other by a zine-like informational brochure which compiles the artist’s findings and questions about information surrounding school shootings.
This zine sits adjacent to a large-scale painting by Woods, who parlays the theme of Westward Expansion into a set of colorful and quasi-traditional cowboy images — the largest of which features a black-hatted central character wielding two six-shooters amid a halo of gun smoke — based off a visual amalgam of Gary Cooper and John Wayne.
Additionally, Woods presented 20 or so ink and graphite drawings, pinned haphazardly to a wall just outside the main gallery, each featuring simple drawings of guns from the 1800’s. This focus on the captivating aesthetics of vintage firearms mirrors the often romanticized history of Westward expansion — a history that we know in truth to be gun-fueled genocide and the territory-grabbing of native populations.
Still, the beauty of Woods’ painting, and the exceedingly tender mixed-media installation by Steward, with which it shares a wall, form a much-needed visual break in an exhibition dense with symbolism and brutality. Steward’s Black Panther-inspired work wordplays the concept of “bearing arms” into a series of four large framed watercolors of two young Black boys engaged in a kind of ambiguous wrestling. These works straddle a corner of the gallery that also hosts a hanging swing, common to a neighborhood playground, but for the saddle rendered in what seems to be the shoulder yoke of a black leather jacket (one aspect of the iconic Panthers uniform). Beneath the swing is a hardened puddle of viscous black foam. The scene evokes a poignant sense of lost innocence, gesturing towards the common (and mistaken) conflation of play with aggression when Black bodies are involved — a particularly tense subject in Cleveland, where in 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police for playing with a toy gun in a playground. In this work, Steward — like many in Cleveland and beyond — continues to grapple with tension between the guns that “keep us safe,” and those that kill our children.
Steward’s work shares floor space with three large sand mandalas created by Matthew Deibel, in his interpretation of Stand-Your-Ground laws that enable gun violence on the basis of a perceived threat to one’s space. Deibel’s mandalas play on the “line in the sand” concept of stand-your-ground, and were created with the knowledge that they would get irrevocably smeared and compromised over the course of the exhibition. In his artist statement, Deibel associates this work with “the loss of life that has resulted from warfare,” including through his own Marine Corps service in Iraq.
The desire on the part of many US citizens to exercise their right to maintain arsenals and bear arms is a notable feature of our society, and it’s difficult to say whether the work presented in America’s Well-Armed Militias could change the heart or mind of a fervent Second Amendment stan. But overall, the show offers a powerful example of how artistic interpretation can sometimes present a reality more visceral than facts, figures, or even historical footage.