Violence is an act that is oftentimes difficult to discuss, muddled with questions of why and how, or umbrella-ed under a larger assumption of collective blame and unease. In today’s society, in a world still full of school shootings, unjust deaths, police brutality, and a heated and continuous battle over safety legislation and gun control laws, it seems perhaps bold yet unsurprising that the Ithaca community might take hold of this unrest and do what it does best: create and exhibit art in an attempt to enact paths of dialogue and change. In fact, there are not one but two shows up now to which I am alluding, separate from one another despite thematic overlap. First is Unloaded at the Handwerker Gallery at Ithaca College, an exhibition curated by Susanne Slavick that aims to tackle guns as both objects and icons in American culture; second is Project for a Re-volution in New York, open at the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) until April, which explores various meanings and acts of revolution.
“Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it,” reads a fading slip of fortune cookie fortune, taped to the inside lid of a small box presented by artist Renee Stout. Smiley faces sandwich the phrase, and in the box lays a small, gleaming pistol. A cut out doll is attached above the fortune, smiling in its floral dress. The piece’s title proclaims: Baby’s First Gun. It’s cutesy and banal—kitsch. It mocks an air of innocence, of innocuousness. But Stout’s piece, which is part of the Unloaded show, presents one of the many points the Handwerker aims to make, questioning the carefree passivity the fortune exhibits and why something so violent—even for protection—could be handed out so playfully to a child as some sort of rite of passage. The act appears old-fashioned and flawed, the gift like some relic of the past.
In all, the Handwerker show has a lot to say, from the joking powerlessness of a water gun pointed to a plane in Jinshan’s photograph I also like hijacking to the alarming resonance of Andrew Ellis Johnson’s Rehearsal,in which bullets plug a pair of marble cast ears in an attempt to ignore any talk of danger.
But some of the show’s strength lies in its subtleties: one standout is Lauren Adams’ Granny Smith and Wesson, which consists of a small stool one could find in a grandparent’s house, perhaps in the sitting room. Its pattern, at first forgettable and easy to overlook, boasts a continuum of cutely drawn guns, reduced to symbols of domesticity despite their inherent violence.
Meanwhile, Project for a Re-volution in New York at TCPL is not exclusively an examination of guns, though they do play a part. The show, curated by Todd Ayoung and Krishna Ramanujan, was inspired by Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel of the same name, a book of unrest in 1970s New York City. Ayoung and Ramanujan write in the show’s statement of the dual nature of the term “revolution,” an act that describes both political upheaval as well as a rotation of social structures. It is not confined to anarchy, but is resistance and subversion, a change in the ways we see, act, and function. Some of the works in the show speak more clearly than others—Kadie Salfi’s Red Guns, for example, are insightful and terrifying prints, jumping out from within bookshelves and labeled with the specific school shootings to which each gun refers—but the eclecticism of the show’s works as a whole present a diverse collection of oddities, some created documents and others found. “The story presented,” Jason Kates Van Stavern writes of his piece of found 35mm slides, “supports my belief in the responsibility of every person to foment and enact change when the systems in which they participate fail.” Both shows do just this in enthralling and eye-opening ways, dissecting failing systems in search of something new. •