American Gun Show Exhibition Explores a National Obsession
Issues of free speech, personal liberty, and national identity get explored in the ‘American Gun Show’ exhibition.
Marnika Cherelle. Prototype, 2012; Courtesy of the Artist
The gun. It’s as American as apple pie.
Originally envisioned by the Founding Fathers as tyranny deterrant, the gun has since become many other things: the criminal’s trusty tool, the hobbyist’s fetish and, depressingly, the police force’s preferred weapon in its dealings with African Americans. And though the NRA and responsible gun owners may point to hunting as a positive use of firearms, the reality is that the gun just can’t seem to outgrow the reason for its invention: ending human life.
But gun rights, ownership, and usage are complex issues. And the American Gun Show exhibition, curated by James Morgan and Dorothy Santos at at Works San José gallery in California, attempts to unwrap these complexities with artistic responses lying at the intersection of technology, free speech, personal liberty, and national identity.
The works in American Gun Show come in all shapes and forms. Four guns were 3D-printed for the show, all based on Cody Wilson’s Liberator pistol. But the work created by artist Nika Cherelle, Prototype, might take the cake. Satirizing the association of guns with masculinity, the barrel of Cherelle’s golden firearm is an erect penis. In Micha Cardena’s piece UNSTOPPABLE, made in collaboration with Patrisse Cullors, Edxie Betts, and Chris Head, the artist explores the idea of making bulletproof clothing and gear in response to Cullors’ question at the Allied Media Conference 2015: “What would technology for Black Lives be?”
Morgan and Santos also selected Annie Wan's 3D-printed Cosmic Gun, a piece that detects gamma rays, which she created during her Eyebeam residency. Another artist, Asa Scheibe, scoured YouTube to find and collect videos of children constructing firearms from cardboard and paper. And Artist Joseph DeLappe created a large AK-47 for the exhibition, which he fashioned by extracting data from various shooter games to create sculptures that bring the terrorist avatar play into the physical world.
Santos tells The Creators Project the impetus for the show was Morgan’s thoughts and observations on guns and gun culture, primarily based on Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed Liberator gun (a .38 caliber pistol). When Wilson made the Liberator files available, Morgan went through the process of printing and piecing together its various parts.
“In the process of assembling the gun I was struck by the mechanical quality of it and the immense amount of engineering that went into it—it was truly sublime being awe-inspired and terrifying,” Morgan says.
“The question I was left with about the file being restricted as a munition was ‘what is a gun?’” Morgan adds. “This question finds its way into the exhibition multiple times in the mini-Liberator (scaled-down version of Cody's Liberator) and a few other works. This tension between the First and Second Amendments also became an interesting focus as an artist.”
Though the exhibition grew out of Morgan’s 3D-printing of the Liberator, Morgan credits Santos with making the show what it is. Early on he realized his perspective did not represent the intended audience, so he sought out someone who would complement that vision.
Santos, whose father served in the US Army and was a prisoner of war in World War II, was raised in a household with firearms. She says she had many thoughts on gun culture: how they served as an extension of her father’s masculinity, and how they exist as objects of power and disempowerment. While they had an open call for the show, Morgan and Santos respective brushes with gun culture made the selection process one based on multiple artistic angles.
“Half of our exhibition includes women and women of color, which most people didn't expect,” Santos says. “We also took a chance by looking at the work and not considering the political stances of each artist because we wanted [varied] perspectives. This topic can easily become myopic if we considered curating particular works with a specific agenda. It was challenging to curate a show that was neutral, but we tried hard to do this.”
After holding the exhibition, Santos says it’s now incredibly challenging for her not to hold a position on guns. While the two curators and artists are appalled by massacres that involve guns, they had to contend with rights that allow people to feel “safety, security, and agency” in their choices over whether being a gun owner or not.
In the process of curating and gallery sitting for the show, Morgan has talked to people across the spectrum. On opening night, one guest told him that the desire to shoot guns was a “mental illness.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, visitors from New Jersey told him of shooting guns as a family. Overall, Morgan says the conversations have been good, and he credits the artists for laying the groundwork for these civil and productive exchanges.
“It was the level of responsibility and safety that come from our ‘gun enthusiast’ artists that convince me that as a people we could shut down a lot of incidental gun violence if we just talked to each other and more importantly listened,” Morgan says. “We tried to not make this about politics, to make a safe space to visit and be challenged by the work, and hopefully to have a chuckle, too.”
Nevertheless, Santos says some individuals have been appalled by the exhibition, particularly since it arrived in the wake of this year’s Charleston church shooting and the more recent Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon. These critics have said the show is bad timing. But Morgan and Santos say that the curatorial response is that there is no such thing as timing.
“Sadly, a shooting will happen with or without an exhibition about guns,” Santos says. “James brought up a relevant inquiry: ‘As a nation, if not much has changed after Sandy Hook, what are we doing?’ That was the one event we thought change would happen, culturally, politically, historically. But little has changed.”
Ultimately, Santos wants visitors to walk away from American Gun Show thinking about what aspects of legislation must be changed, as well as how American citizens can become more informed on gun safety. She also hopes visitors will think of how artists are looking at these topics in a way that forces them to become involved in the conversation.
“I also want people to see this as part of their culture and realize that ignoring the issues around gun violence will not make them go away,” Morgan adds. “But working together as a community we can vastly improve safety and reduce the level of innocents that are being killed on a daily basis.”
American Gun Show is on view until November 15 at Works San José gallery in San José.