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New Exhibit Takes Aim at Gun Culture and Its Pathologies

As mass shootings become “normal” again from Atlanta to Boulder, Karen M. Gutfreund invites to explore the toxic culture that feeds our gun obsession.

Eleanor J. Bader Mar 24

Alice Beasley, Whose Second Amendment? (2017), Cotton, nylon and polyester organza on nylon horsehair, 52 x 84 inches

In her Introduction to the catalog of Deadlocked and Loaded: Disarming America, curator Karen M. Gutfreund writes that “gun culture, systemic racism, toxic masculinity, police brutality, and the rise of white supremacy are undeniably urgent issues that cannot be avoided or ignored. Polarized, political times call for political activist art.”

Indeed, art that serves politically progressive movements is Gutfreund’s reason d’etre. Prior to assembling the 52 works included in Deadlocked and Loaded, she curated Not Normal: Art in the Age of Trump, an intersectional array of visual art that addressed the many ways that the Trump administration violated human and civil rights and encouraged hatred and division.

Holly Ballard Martz uses approximately 6,000 spent gun-shell casings to spell out the words “love hurts” to illuminate the misogynist link between romance and abuse.

This time, her focus has narrowed and the art—created by 36 self-identified female artists—zooms in on gun violence and its aftermath. The works include multiple genres: Painting, sculpture, poster-art, photography, collage, digital manipulation, and mixed media, with each piece highlighting the price we, as a society, pay for police violence, “open carry” policies, lax licensing, and failure to limit which weapons are allowed in civilian hands.

Nette Forné ThomasSPEAKING OUT, BREAKING OUT, 2015, Graphite and incised acetate, 42 x 32 inches

The toll of these failures is enormous, Gutfreund writes. This past February alone, 1,193 people were killed and 234 were injured by guns. Even more chilling, since 2012’s Sandy Hook massacre, nearly 2400 children have been shot to death. Add in the 20 million guns sold in 2020—up from 14 million in 2019—and the scope of the problem should make everyone want to take a sober look at gun policy in the US of A.

Deadlocked and Loaded is intended as a catalyst, a vivid illustration of the devastating impact of gun violence in everyday life. Holly Ballard Martz’s “Love Hurts”, for example, is a reminder that in an average month, 53 women are killed by a gun-toting partner. The piece uses approximately 6,000 spent gun-shell casings to spell out the words “love hurts” to illuminate the misogynist link between romance and abuse. 

Alice Beasley’s “Whose Second Amendment?” depicts a white man standing beneath the words Open Carry. Next to him is a Black man wearing a Black Lives Matter tee-shirt, his hands in the air, the words Open Season hovering above his head.

Ann J. LewisThis is Who We Are (#2), 2020, Porcelain, ribbon, dimensions variable

Mona Cliff’s “Untitled” is at first glance a drawing of a long gun. Closer inspection, however, reveals numerous faces, their eyes offering a collaged reminder of the impact of shootings on both perpetrators and victims. In an artist statement, Cliff calls gun violence “an infectious American condition” and says that “Untitled” is meant to reflect her “helplessness and feeling of unease” over the spate of mass killings in communities throughout the country.

It’s chilling.

Similarly, Beth Costello’s “What Is and What Should Not Be” adapts Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With, placing six-year-old Ruby Bridges into the chalk outline of a fallen body as she walks to school.

Beth Costello, What Is And What Should Not Be , 2014, Mixed media collage, digital print, 6 x 8 inches

Nette Forme Thomas’ “Speaking Out, Breaking Out”, done with graphite and incised acetate, features a group of women, their faces contorted by grief and rage. “They speak in unison to voice opposition to the racism and sexism issues which are exacerbated by the prevalence of gun violence,” her statement explains. 

And while children are certainly not the only victims of gun violence, Ann J. Lewis’ “This is Who We Are [#2]” depicts the senselessness of cutting lives short. Her installation involves broken ceramic baby shoes hanging from threads, shattered pieces of pottery on the floor below.

Even more tragic and galling, Karen Fiorita’s “Say Their Names” is a horrible reminder that in “1,252 reported Black deaths by police since 2015, 99% of officers were not charged with a crime.”

Holly Ballard MartzConstellation of Transgressions (thoughts and prayers), 2019, Encaustic and spent bullet primers on panel, 36 x 48 inches each

Not surprisingly, police abuse is central to much of the work in Deadlocked and Loaded and while the exhibition offers no organizing strategies for combating this scourge, it nonetheless asks us to reconsider why weaponry has come to symbolize protection and independence. As Gutfreund concludes, “The Second Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the right of individuals to keep and bear arms. Our country insists on interpreting the Amendment to allow individuals to create an arsenal that actually threatens rather than protects. How secure are we when 20 children in an elementary school can be shot by a 20-year-old boy, when 471 people can be mowed down at a concert, when 49 people are massacred at a nightclub?”

Needless to say, these are rhetorical questions. But will lawmakers ever think to answer them?

Deadlocked and Loaded: Disarming America, Karen M. Gutfreund, curator. Exhibition runs until April 18, 2021 at ArtRage, Community Folk Art Center, and Point of Contact/Punto de Contacto Galleries in Syracuse, New York. Exhibition catalog is also available.

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