Much has been written about the role of firearms in American culture, with harsh critics and vehement advocates debating the positives and negatives of this role. Will firearms one day be seen as an antiquated relic of a more violent age, like the dueling swords of 18th Century gentlemen, or the daggers and knives ubiquitous on every medieval belt from peasant to noble? Or, conversely, will the individuals who make up our society learn to stop shooting each other, so that firearms can serve a positive role as tools for recreation, competition, and defense?
Only time will tell, but in the mean time, it remains undeniable that firearms have a significant, and contentious, role in American society. (Their role internationally varies nation-by-nation.) Anything this charged is fertile ground for artists seeking high-tension subject matter, and indeed artists have worked with firearms and firearm imagery in a variety of ways.
For the now-famous performance Shoot, at F Space in Santa Ana, California, performance artist Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle. Sculptor Tom LaDuke made a sort of homage in his “A Self-Inflicted Burden,” a self-portrait in which he holds a pistol in one hand and examines a gunshot wound on his other arm. Reviewed in Artweek, Art In America, and The Los Angeles Times, LaDuke’s sculpture plays with Burden through its small scale, the self-inflicted nature of the wound (Burden’s wasn’t, at least not directly), and through the title’s pun.
New York-based, Louisiana-born artist Margaret Evangeline uses firearms as an art-making tool, shooting holes in sheets of mirror-polished stainless steel, powder-coated steel, and aluminum. (She also works in painting, installation, and video.)
Tom Sachs worked with guns in a couple of ways. His 1995 sculpture Tiffany Glock (Model 19), made of cardboard, hot glue, and ink, and his Hermes Hand Grenade are both non-functional, but Sachs and his assistants also made hand-made, fully-functional firearms. Some of these are listed on his website as art objects, but others were part of a clever scheme (some might argue performance) in which he and his assistants easily made improvised “zip guns” out of common, hardware-store materials, and sold them to NYPD’s gun buyback program at up to $300 apiece.
Alfredo Martinez is another artist who worked with firearms, and also came up with a novel money-making scheme. Martinez’ scheme didn’t have anything to do with making guns; he was making fake Basquiat paintings, for which he was arrested by the FBI. But in his more honest career as a painter, his own work consisted of large-scale paintings of cross-section schematics of firearms. This actually got him into trouble more recently, when he was traveling and working in China; a hotel maid found some of his drawings, which looked like blueprints, so she reported him to the police as a terrorist.
Other artists have of course worked with firearm imagery from time to time. Andy Warhol’s screenprint “Gun” treats its subject with the same cool remove with which he treated all of his popular culture sources. The Gao Brothers’ 2009 sculpture “The Execution of Christ” features a ring of Mao clones armed with SKS rifles executing Jesus. The examples are almost countless.
A longstanding sophism holds that a work of art isn’t finished until the viewer completes it by looking at it. This is more like a Zen koan than a debatable point, along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest…” This notwithstanding, art’s relationship with its viewer plays a particularly interesting role when the art in question involves firearms, when art viewers are typically stereotyped as liberal and therefore (the stereotype holds) anti-gun.
The message, if the film has one at all – more guns, more fun. And in a throwback, old school kind of way, yeah. But in the heart of the carnage, it’s nearly impossible not to think of when big guns and cinema violence last met in the real world of Aurora, Colorado. Forget all the post-tragedy finger pointing between the gun lobby and the media coddlers, in “The Expendables 2″ both sides of the divide set aside their differences long enough to join forces and make a tag team grab at the box office.
This odd and oddly at ease symbiosis was plainly evident at the film’s Hollywood premiere when Chuck Norris made his onscreen cameo, a real life, unabashed, gun-toting conservative, entering frame at a stroll, wading through all the dead baddies he’s just laid out to the hoots and hollers and enthusiastic applause of a theater filled with Hollywood’s so-called liberal elites.
It is this same sort of interaction between audience and subject that creates the essential tension in artworks with firearms as their subject. Some people, upon seeing an image of a firearm, feel a frightened revulsion, others feel a giddy fascination, and of course there is a spectrum in between. Regardless of its orientation, this response, whether positive, negative, or ambivalent, is what makes firearms such an enduring subject (and sometimes medium) in works of art.
[Post-script: As part of our practice, Stephanie Burke and I take artists and other art-world participants to a shooting range and teach them to shoot firearms. We call this project Shooting With Artists. If you are a Chicago-area artist or other art professional, and would like to join us on a future shooting trip, shoot us an email at either my website, or Stephanie’s.]