Opinion

The (New) Handgun Aesthetic

Peter Andrew's Point Blank Project web site (www.pointblankproject.com)
Peter Andrew’s Point Blank Project web site (image via the artist)

OAKLAND, Calif. — We’ve all seen the moment in movies when the hero, villain, or unwitting victim has to stare down the barrel of a gun. Depending on how the filmmaker wants us to perceive the character, she or he responds with fear, anger, nonchalance or a lightning quick disarming. Regardless of the response of the person on the other end, the moment is designed to be a tense one, and it forces those of us who’ve never had that experience to ask ourselves, “How would I respond?”

I’ve recently come across the work of Peter Andrew, a Toronto-based artist who meticulously photographs guns from the barrel side and prints them out at massive scale, as large as 4×8 feet. Titled the Point Blank Project, Andrew’s efforts could certainly be read as a political statement, especially in light of the rash of mass shootings in the United States in recent months, but the artist suggests otherwise:

“I’m not saying guns are good or bad in this project. What I am saying is that guns can be interesting to look at from a technical and visual perspective,” Andrew says.

Indeed, the detail that Andrew brings to guns is a rare one in media.  Even in films that glorify the mechanics of gun assembly (think of every sniper movie ever), we rarely get that kind of close-up view of the bumps and contours of the object itself.

Adrian Piper, Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013. Image via Creative Time Reports.
Adrian Piper, Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013. (image via Creative Time Reports)
It calls to mind an Adrian Piper piece featured in Creative Time Reports in August that placed a faded image of Trayvon Martin in the crosshairs. “Imagine what it was like to be me”, the work declares, while the piece puts us squarely in the perspective of the shooter. Piper’s work creates the kind of tension one experiences in film, but by being tied to a recent event in American history, it heightens an ordinarily fictional experience into a pertinent and personal one.

Gun disarmament is another theme I’ve seen in art recently. There’s Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’s Imagine series, a collection of discarded weapons re-imagined as musical instruments. “This is also a call to action,” he wrote in his blog about the pieces, “since we cannot stop the violence only at the place where the weapons are being used, but also where they are made.”  And it’s hard not to see the winking satire in Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s series of women wielding guns made of vegetables. These images reflect the potential beauty of guns as aesthetic rather than destructive objects.

The gun debate in the United States is a complex one, wrapped up in a long history of arms bearing so important to the country that it’s enshrined in the Constitution and regularly explored in Hollywood films.  For every argument in favor of a gun-free society, there’s an argument to be made about how guns have a role to play not just in defense, but hunting and recreation as well. Lincoln Clarke’s portraits of women in Texas with their guns gets at this a bit; it’s a simple series that is memorable, perhaps, because of how it breaks apart one stereotype (that guns are a guy thing) while reinforcing another (that Texans love guns). It creates complexity in a debate that can often seem black and white.

I think part of what makes Andrew’s work more interesting than it initially appears (this is more a speculation than a value judgment, as I’ve not seen the piece in person to experience the full effect). His images put us both in the shoes of the target and the handler. It’s not just victims who stare down the barrel of a gun; gun owners do the same thing when they clean it. As the debate in the United States continues, I hope we see more art that grapples with the many sides and perspectives of this incredibly important and difficult issue.

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