A ‘safe space’ for guns, artists and dialogue at the Aspen Institute

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Brian Borrello's "Open Carry" was among the works in "Guns in the Hands of Artists," which showed at the Kriesge and Paepcke galleries at the Aspen Institute this summer.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Guns in the Hands of Artists’ public viewing

When: July 20-24, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.;

Where: Kriesge and Paepcke galleries, Aspen Institute

More info:

If You Go …

What: ‘Guns in the Hands of Artists’ public lecture and reception

When: July 27, 5 p.m.

Where: Paepcke Auditorium, Aspen Institute

More info:

A new exhibition at the Aspen Institute invites you to look down the double-barrel of a shotgun, to grip a 9 mm “street sweeper” and, hopefully, to talk about guns and violence in the U.S.

“Guns in the Hands of Artists” opened Sunday in two galleries on the Institute campus, showcasing work by 33 artists using decommissioned guns and gun parts from New Orleans. It will remain on view through July.

The show — poignant, playful and frightening by turns — is the brainchild of New Orleans gallerist Jonathan Ferrara and Portland, Oregon, artist Brian Borrello, who collaborated on a similar project in 1996. Last year, Ferrara, a self-proclaimed “gunrunner to the arts community,” partnered with the New Orleans Police Department, which gave him 186 guns from its evidence room. He distributed them to artists around the country — painters, sculptors, metalworkers, poets — and invited them to make original works addressing guns and American society.

Along with galleries, works in the show have made the rounds at gun shows in an effort to create common ground in the polarized gun-control debate by using art, rather than politics, as its centerpiece. Sunday’s opening included at least one NRA member, who called the exhibition a “safe space” for gun owners to talk about gun violence outside the context of the polarized national debate on gun laws.

“That’s really the goal,” Ferrara said Sunday, “to navigate these rooms across the country and have these conversations, where it can create that safe space. … Who knows what can happen from there?”

Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, a New Orleans native, saw the show at Ferrara’s eponymous gallery last year and invited him to bring it to the Aspen campus. The Institute exhibition begins a planned three-year national tour that will bring “Guns in the Hands of Artists” to communities around the U.S.

“I consider this a public art project with different publics — gun public, art public — coming together,” said Borrello, himself a gun owner.

For his piece “Open Carry,” on display in the Paepcke Gallery, Borrello melded an “endless clip” onto the bottom of a decommissioned, 9 mm, semi-automatic pistol (known colloquially as a “street sweeper”). The clip nearly forms a circle, 8 feet in diameter, that ends just above a standing viewer’s head, ominously, like a scorpion’s tale. Borello invites viewers to touch the art and grip the gun.

Artist Adam Mysock of New Orleans literally asks viewers to look down the barrel of a shotgun in his piece. When you do, you see miniature reproductions of Hans Memling’s 15th century triptych “The Last Judgment” and a film still from the children’s classic “Bambi,” evoking the universal childhood memory of Bambi’s mother being shot and the apocalypse in a discomfiting juxtaposition within a decommissioned Sohn shotgun.

Ron Bechet’s “Why! (Is it Easier to Get a Gun than an Education, A Gun Instead of Help?)” is a moving memorial to New Orleanian murder victims using the visual vocabulary of folk art. It places a map of the city on a coffin lid, embedded with gun parts, with the names and ages of city residents killed with guns painted in red. Pins are placed at the location of each murder and “Why!” is painted in black, alongside the names. A mourning wreath hangs from the bottom of the piece.

Grappling with gun violence is more an intellectual exercise for Bechet. A week before he traveled to Aspen with the exhibition, he attended the funeral of his wife’s cousin, a New Orleans police officer, shot and killed on duty. The “Why!” in his piece evokes the confusion about the root of such murders.

“This exhibition has certainly gotten people thinking about the notion of violence and guns and what that does to us,” he said. “But we need to think more clearly that it’s not about the gun but the people holding the gun. … What causes somebody to take that extreme action?”

The show includes manhole covers with gunbarrels poking out from them, a shotgun converted into a marijuana bong, a drum with mallets fashioned from shotguns. Santa Fe, New Mexico, artist Peter Sarkisian’s immersive installation piece, “Recoil,” fills a closet space in the Kriesge Gallery. It consists of a table, on which a gun, an open book, a plate and a pile of pictures have been placed. Through light, video and sound work, the kitchen table items are slowly sucked in by the weapon.

Guns themselves aren’t manifestly represented in all of the pieces. MK Guth’s “Bang,” for instance, is a steel plate — made from melted-down gun pieces — hanging from a chain with “BANG” etched into it.

“We wanted to undermine the symbolism of the gun in its original form,” Guth said.

In New Orleans, Ferrara has hosted conversations with victims and perpetrators of gun violence, including recently released convicts, at his gallery along with community members. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, the exhibition is part of a larger discussion about guns in the U.S. in panels, lectures and roundtables throughout the week. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu took in the show Sunday, and noted in a panel Tuesday morning that 640,000 people have been murdered with guns in the U.S. since 1980, totaling more American casualties than all U.S. wars since World War I combined. Landrieu, along with Isaacson and others, is writing an essay for a book on “Guns in the Hands of Artists,” due out later this year.

“We (Americans) have been the leaders in gun violence for a long time, but we can be leaders in a different way on this,” Ferrara said.