‘Guns in the Hands of Artists’ Brings an Urgent Debate to Miami’s Art Week

The exhibition, on view at Miami Project, is more timely than ever.

Jonathan Ferrara, Excalibur No More (2014). Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

As visitors to Miami Art Week soak up the sunshine, champagne, and blue-chip art, the rest of the country has been rocked by another mass shooting, with 14 killed in San Bernardino, California. The latest tragedy makes Jonathan Ferrara Gallery’s exhibition at Miami Project, “Guns in the Hands of Artists,” all the more timely.

The show brings the debate over gun control into the art world by having artists including Mel Chin and Deborah Luster—whose mother died in a shooting in 1988—make art using decommissioned guns.

Ron Bechet, <em>Why? (Is it Easier to Get a Gun Than an Education, A Gun Instead of Help?)</em> (2014). Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Ron Bechet, Why? (Is it Easier to Get a Gun Than an Education, A Gun Instead of Help?) (2014).
Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

The New Orleans gallery first staged the social activist art project back in 1996, with artist Brian Borrello. “We’re always at the top of the list for murder capitals in the country,” Ferrara told artnet News about his home city.

At the time, the show was “heavy on guns, light on art,” but in 2014 the gallery decided to restage the exhibition for Prospect.3 Biennial. The current edition, said Ferrara, is at a much higher level, with “museum-caliber work.” Its appearance in Miami is part of a national tour that includes the Aspen Institute, Washington University in Saint Louis, Chicago’s Project &, and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

Paul Villinski, <em>Mourn</em> (2014). Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Paul Villinski, Mourn (2014).
Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Putting together a show based on real weapons presented some challenges. As you might expect, there was a lot of governmental red tape involved, but Ferarra was ultimately able to acquire 186 guns through the city’s gun buy-back program. The decommissioned weapons were then distributed to more than 30 painters, sculptors, video artists, and poets, who were asked to use the guns to create new works.

The country’s current debate on gun control is “just a screaming match and nothing seems to get done,” said Ferrara. The exhibition looks to reexamine the highly-charged debate through the lens of art.

Generic Art Solutions, <em>Target: Audience</em> (2014). Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Generic Art Solutions, Target: Audience (2014).
Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

“From Sandy Hook to Columbine, it is a continuing issue in this country,” said Ferrara on Tuesday night’s opening, when artnet News was the show’s very first visitor. The San Bernardino shooting took place the next day.

While Ferrara allows that most artists tend to be left-leaning, he insists that the exhibition is not meant to espouse any one point of view, and is instead “a forum for the exchange of ideas” that allows artists to “hold a mirror up to these issues.”

Each piece examines different aspects of gun violence, from drive-by shootings and the death of children at the hands of guns, to the grief of family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence.

Adam Mysock, <em>Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun (Last Judgment) After: Hans Memling's "The Last Judgment" Triptych (c. late 1460s), Bambi's mother from Disney's 'Bambi' (1942)</em> 2014. Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Adam Mysock, Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun (Last Judgment) After: Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgment” Triptych (c. late 1460s), Bambi’s mother from Disney’s ‘Bambi’ (1942) 2014.
Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Highlights include Adam Mysock’s poignant miniature paintings, portraits of six children who died at the hands of guns between 2010 and 2014 painted on bullet heads that have been embedded in the walls. The artist also offers the chilling Looking Down the Barrel of the Gun, which forces viewers to do just that (normally quite unadvisable) to see tiny paintings of heaven and hell by Hans Memling, and a drawing of Bambi’s mother, in reference to the artist’s first realization of the dangers of guns.

Marcus Kenney has contributed a luminous photo of his daughter, dancing in the backyard, gun held over his head. The image came about by chance: Kenney had left the weapon lying around his studio, where his daughter found it and began playing with it. After initially admiring the beauty of the photo, Kenney suddenly realized “wait a second, that could have been a loaded gun,” Ferrara explained.

For each piece, the artist “is taking that thing that is the issue, and utilizing it as the raw materials that comment on the issue,” said Ferrara. “It’s very evocative as a loaded medium.”

Marcus Kenney, Girl with Gun. Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Marcus Kenney, Girl with Gun.
Photo: courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

Ferrara has also contributed a work of his own, inserting the barrel of a shotgun into a large piece of Colorado river rock, in a play on the sword in the stone titled Excalibur No More. It’s a compelling work that perfectly illustrates the power of the show’s subject matter.

“Guns in the Hands of Artists” is on view in the penthouse of the Deauville Beach Resort, 6701 Collins Avenue, North Beach, Miami, December 2–6, 2015.

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