In the last 20 years, gun violence has become part of the very fabric of American society. In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, which claimed 49 lives, the Senate let most Americans down by rejecting four measures aimed at curbing easy access to guns. The Brady campaign, a gun control advocacy nonprofit, estimates that 89 people die daily from gun violence, and as it stands, 2016 is slated to be the bloodiest year on record. Millions of guns are sold annually in “no questions asked” transactions–a practice that defies logic and fuels human suffering. While the U.S. government remains locked in partisan grandstanding that makes little difference to the lives lost (over 500 since the Orlando shooting), here are five artists who use gun related imagery to address our culture of violence and its human toll.
Hank Willis Thomas
In 2000, the artist Hank Willis Thomas lost his cousin Songha Thomas Willis to a random act of robbery and murder in a Philadelphia parking lot. In Memoriam, the artist engages with the violence surrounding black manhood in mainstream American media. Examining the black male body as a locus of both fear and desire, Thomas points to the longstanding relationships between blackness, violence and consumer culture.
In “Priceless #1” (2004), Thomas appropriates the ubiquitous language of advertising to depict the funeral of his murdered cousin. Here the well-known MasterCard slogan serves as a haunting reminder that life itself cannot be bought and sold.
Thomas’ “Raise Up” (2014) struck a chord with many when the artist posted an image of the work on his Instagram shortly after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. This piece links the deaths of Garner and Michael Brown–whose last words were “Hands up, don’t shoot”–to the countless other lives lost to hate across the globe. “Raise Up” contains a multitude of meanings, including surrender, worship, and emancipation. The disembodied heads and arms face away from us, turned to possibly a preacher, but in the wake of recent gun violence tragedies, a gun is more likely.
British artist Cornelia Parker has made a career out of transforming objects through scale and material in order to illuminate the fragility and absurdity of human experience. Manipulating objects rich with historical significance, such as charcoal from a Southern black congregation church destroyed by arson, Parker tests the boundaries of meaning and association. Parker’s series Avoided Objects, transforms or blocks the meanings of smaller objects with just as powerful a result as her large-scale works, which she is best known for. In “Embryo Firearms” (1995), Parker rendered two Colt .45 guns into beautiful, innocuous objects, referencing but not capable of violence.
The Colt .45 is arguably the most popular gun in America. Often referred to as “the gun that won the West,” it’s an American icon that has been depicted in films, paintings, and songs over the past 150 years. Famous Colt .45 owners include Buffalo Bill, Theodore Roosevelt, and General George Patton. In “Embryo Firearms” the guns are depicted in their earliest stage of production, where they exist in form but not in function. In presenting these guns in their earliest stage of development–as embryos–Parker ties together birth and death in the same objects. They speak to the potential for violence that passive materials have when put into the right hands. Objects are not born violent, we make them that way.
Bogota-based artist Yosman Botero stacks layers of painted plexiglass sheets on top on of another to create optical illusional paintings. His compositions resemble sculpture because of the sense of weight that his subject matter have with the added depth and shadowing from layering. In the past, his subject matter spanned from abstraction (spirals and bubbles) to cloudscapes to hyperrealistic looking people.
Born in Cúcuta, on the borders between Colombia and Venezuela, his home was a conflict zone because of the illegal gasoline and goods trade that took place between the two countries. In gun mandalas, shimmering gold guns point outward on a black background, the colors reference the old categorization of gasoline as black gold.
Taking design in a different direction, Raul Martinez’ Bullet Rug series is an ongoing project in which the artist weaves “ballistic maps” with used bullet casings that he collects in various places around the globe. The rug pictured here contains around 15,000 used .4 caliber bullet casings. To “weave” the rug, Martinez first drills holes into the sides of each casing, runs string through the holes, and then weaves each string into the rug on a large loom. The process is meditative and craft-oriented, in opposition to the process that produced his material, the firing of a gun.
Through his labor-intensive activity, Martinez speaks to geopolitical movements that don’t always make front-page news: “In Guatemala, for example, the casings came from Israel, which was involved in training their military. In the Middle East, the shells can tell us what countries have been supplying weapons to people in the area, like the USSR and the USA.”
There are no guns in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ piece “Untitled (Death by Gun)” (1990). Rather, the piece points to the accumulation of bodies by gun death. Using the commercial offset process of photolithography, the artist created stacks of printed paper, each depicting 460 individuals killed by guns in one week in the US. Though the subject matter is a departure from the artist’s usual subject matter–gay rights and the AIDS crisis–his action-based practice, such as a disappearing pile of candy representing his partner’s depleting life in “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)” (1991), is perfectly suited to the tragic consequences of gun violence. Viewers are invited to take a sheets of paper, provoking an uneasy mirroring act between the disappearing stack and the lives lost due to gun violence.