One could say that Wesleyan University's new art exhibit, "Up in Arms," has come at exactly the right time. It opened on Oct. 27, a few weeks after a shooter in Las Vegas killed 58 people and a few days before a shooter burst into a church in Texas and opened fire.
One also could say "Up in Arms" came at the wrong time, as some works in the exhibit use humor to make a point about the American public's fascination with guns. It's difficult to see humor in U.S. gun culture with so many innocent lives lost and flags nationwide flying perpetually at half-mast.
Can a country where mass shootings are the norm laugh at a video of a cartoon hot dog twirling a gun between its stick-figure legs, brandishing the firearm as a substitute penis? Or a photo of a Cabela's novelty coffee mug shaped like a gun? To use it, one must put a finger in the trigger and lift it up to one's head.
Nonetheless, artworks in the show provide food for thought and alternative perspectives, some horrifying, some intriguing, some heartbreaking and some hopeful that someday America's gun obsession will run its course.
Even humor can make a serious point, one exhibit visitor says.
"That's our culture reinforcing in a thousand ways that guns are funny somehow," says Wesleyan grad Sarah Tunik, who lives in California but was back on campus for homecoming weekend. "It's hard to convince people that gun use should be looked at soberly when guns are toys, humorous cartoons and an emblem of American freedom and joy."
The exhibit was guest-curated by Susanne Slavick, an art professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Slavick, in a phone interview, says the frequency of mass shootings make the subject matter eternally topical.
"It's every other month. It's always relevant. These incidents just don't stop," she says. "This show originated in 2015 [in Pittsburgh]. It was relevant then. It's just sad how relevant it keeps being."
Slavick contributed one of her own artworks to the show. Before this project, Slavick was concentrating her work on the topic of war. Moving from war to violence on the domestic front was a natural transition.
"We don't devote the same amount of attention and outrage and legislation finding ways to prevent this from happening as we do with war. Our priorities are so skewed."
Jennifer Meridian's found-object wall sculpture, "A City Without Guns," is titled ironically. It is made up of gun-shaped sticks, the kind children wield when playing shooting games. Meridian's fictional city may be without guns, but it is not without the desire to hold something that looks like a gun. That this desire is present in children begs the question: How deeply ingrained is the desire to wield a firearm? At what point in life does wanting to hold a gun-shaped stick morph into wanting to hold a gun?
Jinshan's photograph "I also like hijacking" also employs a toy rifle and uses it ironically. The supersoaker is pointed at a flying airplane. The gun can do nothing but squirt water in the direction of the plane. So why hold it at all? The brandishing of the gun is seen as absurd and childish.
Cultural and pop-cultural stereotypes of gun ownership and usage are tackled by Joshua Bienko and Casey Li Brander. Bienko's "Zwuernica" superimposes a rifle-toting still from the poorly reviewed 2010 Ashton Kutcher movie "Killers" with parts of Picasso's legendary "Guernica." Picasso's anti-violence painting seems to scold the "Killers" moviemaker for putting firearms into a comic romance. The self-portrait by Brander, a native of Hartford, shows her wearing a Destiny's Child T-shirt, holding a semiautomatic weapon in one hand and a target-practice photo of a crazed animal, riddled with perfectly placed bullets.
Brander's self-portrait upends general perceptions of consumers of firearms, Slavick says.
"Casey is a gay, Jewish, Chinese-American who lives in Shanghai and does standup comedy," Slavick says. "She's a whole constellation of demographic identities that you might not typically associate with 'gun owner.'"
Katie Rose Pipkin and Jessica Fenlon have opposing visions of firearms, one of construction, one of deconstruction.
For her video "Ungun," Fenlon took hundreds of images of guns from the Internet and violent movies and digitally manipulated them into pixelated blobs, rendering them ineffective, nothing but a flickering piece of art.
Pipkin's "162 Free Guns" is a book of photos of guns created on 3D printers. Some are fake guns. Some are real guns. A gun designer posted patterns to 3D-print real guns on its website in 2012, but was forced shortly afterward by the State Department to remove them. Still, the patterns are out there and that same gun designer continues to design guns that can be made by average people in their homes.
Another visitor to the gallery sees "162 Free Guns" as chilling. "I was astonished and frankly a little frightened by the realization that the artist had downloaded all of those images from open-source online repositories of gun drawings, which could easily be created with a 3D printer," says Julie Glautz.
Slavick also finds "162 Guns" disturbing. "As technology becomes more and more accessible, eventually guns will be even more accessible. It's still cheaper to go and buy a real gun than print one with plastic material, and if you count the cost of the printer," she said. "What's most frightening to me is that those guns are completely untraceable, unrecordable, undetectable. ... They're deliberately made by a company that is openly committed to promoting the second amendment. They see this as a work-around."
Works by Andrew Ellis Johnson and Adrian Piper call to mind the tragedy that comes from gun violence. Piper's digital image puts a faded photo of Trayvon Martin in the crosshairs of a gun, presumably from the visual perspective the shooter, George Zimmerman. Johnson's video, "The Massacre of the Innocents," puts toys inside a target, invoking the horror of Sandy Hook without actually mentioning it.
Vanessa German, who lives and creates her art in a violence-ridden neighborhood of Pittsburgh, prefers hope to dismay. Her artwork is a series of lawn signs, that say merely "Stop Shooting We Love You."
Other artists in the show are Cathy Colman, James Duesing, Stephanie Syjuco and the artist collective Dadpranks (Lauren Goshinski, Kate Hansen, Isla Hansen, Elina Malkin, Nina Sarnelle and Laura A. Warman).
UP IN ARMS is at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University in Middletown until Dec. 10. There is no admission charge. wesleyan.edu/cfa