Danielle’s ARTicles: ‘Guns in the Hands of Artists’

| Contributing Reporter

When guns are placed in the hands of artists, most of them aim towards their viewers’ hearts and minds. At least that’s what the participants in the Des Lee Gallery’s current show, “Guns in the Hands of Artists” did. Stepping through the doors of the Washington University-owned off-campus gallery space, I suddenly came face-to-face with a 21-foot long circular swoop of welded steel holding a 9mm machine pistol.

The Des Lee Gallery at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts is currently hosting a "Guns in the Hands of Artists" exhibit.  Organized by the Jonathan Ferara Gallery in New Orleans, the exhibit explores the history and role of guns in American culture.Madeleine Underwood | Student Life

The Des Lee Gallery at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts is currently hosting a “Guns in the Hands of Artists” exhibit. Organized by the Jonathan Ferara Gallery in New Orleans, the exhibit explores the history and role of guns in American culture.

A couple of weeks earlier, at around 1 a.m. in my apartment on Washington Avenue, my friends and I heard six gunshots ring through a nearby alley. We compared these powerful, deafening pops to the heavy fireworks on Art Hill that had startled us just a week before. None of us grew up in places where it was normal to see or hear guns unless it was in movies or media. It was a vexing reality. We sat for hours together, our ears pressed against the wall, hoping for the sirens to fade or for a note from the Washington University Police Department that it was safe to sleep before realizing there was nothing we could do. I’m pretty sure those sounds smashed through the Wash. U. bubble that I have lived so comfortably in for the past three years. I hadn’t been able to shake the reverberating sounds from my mind ever since. Little did I know that those bullet sounds were nothing compared to the jolt and internal response I would receive by entering a gallery space filled with guns.

The piece that I initially noticed was “Open Carry,” a comment on the endless capacity of guns. The steel is shaped in a circular clip to symbolize the never-ending violence and cyclical nature of this weapon. It was created by Brian Borrello, the man who jumpstarted the Guns in the Hands of Artists project in the 1990s when the New Orleans, La., murder rate hit a high. The show was originally put together by the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans, first exhibited in 1996 and again this past year before traveling to many other locations around the country. Decommissioned guns were removed from the streets of New Orleans and handed to artists to use as material in their work with one goal: to create conversation about guns and gun violence in our society.

Although the first show sparked a response in the news and in art spaces around the nation, the issue of guns was not solved, and may not be for generations to come. Eighteen years later, curator Jonathan Ferrara decided to give it another “shot,” so to speak. He partnered with the New Orleans Police Department to collect 186 guns from their gun buy-back program and distributed these firearms to over 30 internationally recognized artists of various mediums. Since last year, the New Orleans-based exhibition has jumped around the country, landing here in St. Louis for the next two months. “Guns in the Hands of Artists” takes another small step toward generating productive dialogue at the Des Lee Gallery. It was brought to St. Louis in conjunction with Wash. U.’s yearlong initiative, “Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis,” run by the Institute for Public Health and the Brown School of Social Work.

GunsArtistsMadeleine Underwood | Student Life

These guns have certainly been repurposed into conversation starters in the context of an art space—viewers can talk about these potent power objects in a less political environment. Most striking to me were the pieces where the artists have forced their audiences to stare straight into the barrels of their decommissioned guns. Mel Chin’s two concrete sculptures look like simple portraits of a man and woman at first glance, placed in the back left corner of the first viewing room in the gallery. But when you inevitably walk by the sculptures, you’ll find the handles of two dark revolvers protruding from the backs of these classically shaped heads. In his pieces, including “Arthur,” Chin has positioned these guns into the portraits of two famous criminals so that when you look into their empty eyes, you’re staring straight down the barrels of the weapons embedded in their being and culture.

A panel was held at the Sam Fox School the day after the show opened to trigger the dialogue. Mediated by artist and former St. Louis police officer Terrell Carter, gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara, original New Orleans organizer Brian Borrello, exhibition artists Ron Bechet and Margaret Evangeline and associate professor Bob Hansman, it discussed the show’s goals to stimulate an action for change in its audience. Hansman commented particularly on this issue in the City of St. Louis and reiterated that this show must reach further than just the audience that can view the artwork.

“It bothers me that we can’t take this more personally than we do. It’s not about just forming an opinion. I want everyone to go do something after seeing the show,” Hansman said. “My goal is very personal. I want to see my kids live.”

The effectiveness of the show relies on its accessibility to community and our ability to spread the word.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at a piece by Luis Cruz Azaceta titled “Street Sign” that read: “No Dying Here Anytime Between 7am to 7pm.” Does this refer to the gallery space or to St. Louis in general? Either way, it sends a powerful message. Azaceta claims in his artist statement that “what sustains [him] as an artist is the belief that art has the power to awaken compassion and hope.” The curators of this show, as well as community members and teachers who have brought it to St. Louis, hope to teach younger generations that there are other ways of accessing the power that they need than by purchasing a gun; The creative power of the artists exhibited needs to be discussed as much as possible.

Visit “Guns in the Hands of Artists” on view at the Des Lee Gallery through Nov. 21 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, at 1627 Washington Avenue.

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