Samuel Colt is a revered person in the history of Hartford, a captain of industry, a driver of the economy, the builder of that fabulous blue, star-spangled onion dome that made his gun factory look like a Russian church.
Colt's connection to Russia fascinates Stass Shpanin. Shpanin's exhibit at EBK Gallery in Hartford, "Coltland Souvenir Shop," has fun with the legacy of Colt.
Shpanin grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the former Soviet Union. He later emigrated with his family to Agawam, Mass., and went to Hartford Art School. At the University of Hartford, he made artworks that reflected his upbringing and his classical art training. But he wanted to branch out, to embrace his new home.
"I wanted to move forward. I'd been living here a long time," he said. "I was familiar with the history but because I wasn't from here, I could look at it from a distance."
Research led him to read about Colt's business dealings during the Crimean War. "He traveled to Russia to meet with the czars, but he tried to sell guns to both the Turks and the Russians," Shpanin said. "One of the reasons he built the dome was to please the czars, to mimic Russian culture."
But before becoming an armaments titan, Colt traveled about, demonstrating entertaining scientific products such as laughing gas and fireworks, billing himself as "the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcutta." These performances established Colt's reputation as a showman, which enhanced his effectiveness later in life when marketing his pistols.
Shpanin glommed onto this weird phase of Colt's life to create "Coltland Souvenir Shop." The exhibit is an offshoot of an exhibit, "Coltland," which was up last April at Temple Contemporary in Philadelphia, where Shpanin now lives with his wife, Anastasia. That exhibit created an amusement park in the gallery dedicated to Colt, taking elements of his legacy and mixing them up in absurd ways with things that had nothing to do with Colt. "It's kitsch. It's pop culture. I was making fun," Shpanin said.
The Hartford conceptual installation, in the small gallery across the street from TheaterWorks, is the Philadelphia exhibit's "gift shop."
Stenciled artworks using the aesthetic of posters line the walls: an image of Elizabeth Colt, a bucking horse like the one on top of the onion dome, two guns, one pink and one blue. An image of the world's first submarine has nothing to do with Colt but has two things in common with a Colt rifle: It was made in Connecticut and was an instrument of warfare.
"I work with historical images, but it's also an absurdity. It's visually disorienting. It makes you question stories you've heard and are familiar with," said Shpanin.
Other items in the exhibit grab the absurdity of the whole concept and run with it: a pair of corduroy-clad legs astride a carousel horse, another pair of legs sticking out of a wall wearing polka-dotted boxer shorts. The walls are lined with silver reflective paper, to enhance the cheesiness of it all.
Some of the items actually are for sale. Want to buy a small white bust of Colt wearing a colorful clown nose?
"When you buy one, you become part of the larger absurdity experience," he said. "You have more time to digest the information."
COLTLAND SOUVENIR SHOP will be at EBK Gallery [small works], 218 Pearl St. in Hartford, until April 30. The opening reception is Saturday, April 15 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. ebkgallery.com.