Art Exhibit Examines Our Troubled Relationship With Guns

Oct 8, 2015

Mel Chin: Cross for the Unforgiven: the 10th Anniversary Multiple
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

An NIU Art Museum exhibit examines America’s fraught relationship with guns. 

Susanne Slavick is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie-Mellon University and the curator of the exhibit “Unloaded.”  We’re looking at the piece that confronts you as you enter the exhibition.  Mel Chin’s 2012 work, “Cross for the Unforgiven: the 10th Anniversary Multiple,” is made up of 8 AK47 rifles, barrels cut and welded together.  Slavick says it’s a powerful piece.

“It brings to light that domestic reality that you can go in a shop and buy this many guns, but it’s also about a larger international arena, too.  They also make a Maltese cross, and that is a symbol of the Crusades, which represents the West.  We typically associate AK47s with the East, so this is what he calls an eternal opposition. It’s frozen in time.”  

Not all of the works in the show are so obviously iconic.  Slavick points out two works in the next room.  Both look like pieces of you might find in an antique store, and in both, the medium is the message.  

A crocheted outline of a rifle by Stephanie Syjuco transforms something hard -- a gun -- into something soft, benign, even domestic, through needlework.

"And it's often typically associated with something called women's work. So in a sense that's a kind of feminist undermining of the destructive power of a gun.  You have another artist, Lauren F. Adams, who's created a kind of footstool where she hand painted the upholstery with Smith & Wessons.  And I think of it as, a footstool literally being at our feet, that this is kind of at the foundation of American culture, the possession and use of guns."

The other pieces run the gamut:  abstract pieces of metal, textile pieces, sculpture, paintings and video.  Despite the variety, Slavick says the works she chose all have something important to say about our relationship with guns. 

She says the show grew out of her own work, and her own concerns.  She had previously done an exhibit that focused on the aftermath of war and violence abroad.

“But, you know one can’t help but live in this country and not be continually shocked by the mass shootings and the headlines, and I thought I would like to turn my attention to violence on the home front.  And guns are the instruments that make a lot of that violence possible, and certainly more frequently fatal.”

Slavick has added detailed descriptions with the story of each work, along with statistics about gun violence in America.  The Art Museum is also hosting events, lectures and poetry readings that Slavick says fit in with what she’s trying to do with the show.

“I’m not deluded to think that any one piece or any one show is going to change the whole national attitude toward guns, but I think that we as artists and anybody in the culture business, is about trying to reshape consciousness, whether it’s directly or indirectly, and to motivate people to think freshly about certain issues, and, hopefully, to lead toward some kind of action.”

Slavick says she knows that probably won’t happen any time soon.  She thinks our relationship with guns will continue to be a divisive topic for the foreseeable future.  But, if this exhibit helps open up the conversation, she sees that as a good start.  

The exhibit runs at the NIU Art Museum through October 24.