The overwhelming first impression of Sheri Schwarz’s painting Sarugaku is of panic, limbs flailing, mouths open in screams. Because it’s part of “#Unload: Pick Up The Pieces” — the new exhibit at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art on Trumbull Street, running through November 11 — you’d be excused for looking for the guns, the blood, the signs of injury.
The actual subject matter is chilling in a different way.
Sarugaku “refers to a form of theatre popular in Japan during the 11th-14th centuries,” an accompanying note explains. “The painting is set in a Japanese classroom. The characters are acting out the horrors of American school violence as the teacher creates tally marks indicating the number of lives lost in school shootings in the U.S. On the board to the right the students explore the velocity of bullets trying to make sense of how this could happen. Farther to the right the number of shootings that have happened around the world are listed. Japan has 0 incidents and the U.S. 288.”
It’s a sudden snapshot of the rest of the world looking at us, the outside looking in, at one of the things that makes the United States fairly unique in the world — that we have so many guns in this country, in our case more guns than people, and every day we deal with the consequences.
”#Unload,” which features 120 artworks by dozens of artists, is a sprawling and an overtly political exhibition, and the only art opening I’ve been to that had a policeman stationed there for security. The pieces are entirely on one side of the gun control debate, which, given New Haven’s politics, isn’t surprising. Some of the more overtly political pieces aren’t subtle about it. You could argue that it’s preaching to the converted. But that would be making a lot of assumptions about just where everyone around here stands. I haven’t talked about gun control with everyone I know in town, but — just for example — I myself am probably further to the right on the issue than you might expect, by virtue of being caught in the middle.
I was a good upstate New York boy about guns growing up. I knew a bunch of gun owners who used them mostly for hunting, and I didn’t see much wrong with that. When I moved to much more urban places after college — first Japan, then New York City, and then to New Haven — and understood more about guns in cities (and, in Japan, what living in a gunless society can be like), my feelings about gun control got complicated but didn’t change essentially. The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School happened, and I was horrified, but it didn’t change my opinions about gun control. The mass shootings continued, at Virginia Tech, in Binghamton, at Fort Hood. They didn’t change me.
Then the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook happened, and that was it. Suddenly the price was too high.
I’m still sympathetic to the responsible gun owners out there, who I know to be careful with their guns; they know better than the average person how dangerous they can be. I don’t think it’s bad to hunt for animals that you then eat, as every hunter I’ve known did; to some extent, it’s a lot better and more honest than getting meat from the industrialized farms most of us get our food from. I don’t feel like gun owners are doing anything wrong. But since Newtown, there’s always a little voice in my head that asks, “but why? Why do we have them?” at the end of every defense of gun ownership I hear — even though I get why, and to some extent support why. But why? And with every shooting I hear about — from the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs to Orlando and Stoneman Douglas, to the accidental shootings of children that happen in homes across the country — that voice gets a little louder.
So the pieces that deal head-on with the raw cost of gun violence hit hard. There are iconographic pieces like Sean Gallagher’s Amend This, Susan Ashelford’s It Could Be Different features a doll plastered with strips of paper, each bearing the name of a victim of gun violence. A red target is painted on the doll’s chest. Miggs Burroughs’s Targets makes effective use of the printing technology that lets you overlay two images on top of each other so that one gives way to the other as you walk by it. In this case, a girl with braids first develops bullseyes on her head and chest, before she is finally reduced to a target on a firing range, though the outline of the braids remains. None of these are subtle. But given the topic, maybe they shouldn’t be.
Several pieces examine America’s gun culture, that thing that runs deep in American society, is often too easily simplified, and has never been fully understood (though this 2011 piece by Matthew Cheney — written just after the shooting in Tucson that killed six and left 13 wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords — remains one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read about it, and one that has helped me in shaping my own opinions).
Katherine Ross’s The Bible Says points out the way that the thing around guns really can feel like a culture, complete with its own belief system. The Bible Says is also one of many pieces in the exhibition to use actual guns or parts of guns, many of them acquired during a buyback program in Hartford in December run by the Unload Foundation, which is also co-sponsoring the exhibition and several events through the next few weeks featuring some of the artists whose works are displayed. Another of those pieces is Elizabeth Devoll’s Gun Machine, which encapsulates how early in kids’ lives guns become part of their day-to-day consciousness in the United States, whether there are guns in the house or not, whether they go hunting or not. If guns aren’t part of their own lives, they hear about them in the news. They see them in movies and comic books. They might buy toy versions of them, or even make them themselves. And, as we have learned over and over, it’s very easy for young adults to get a hold of guns if they want them.
In unbearable terms, Mary Valencia’s My Soldier Son’s Suicide forces us to confront the horrible reality of one of the ends of that culture. Far too many soldiers, trained to use firearms so effectively, have become victims of the traumas they have endured while serving in the armed forces.
Nina Bentley’s Don’t!!!!!!!!!! points out the ways that guns can hurt everyone they come in contact with.
And Katherine Carey’s piece reminds us of New Haven’s own collective complicity in spreading gun violence, as the site of the Winchester gun factory for generations.
Still other works suggest what those of us who might want to change America’s relationship with guns can do. Scott Shuldt converts segments of gun barrels into prayer beads that help us remember and reflect on each of the mass shootings that has happened in the past several years. Dooley-O Jackson uses gun parts to spell the word “love,” a gentle argument for disarmament and dismantlement. And Jahmane’s Street Justice suggests that our voices can be our weapons, maybe if we manage to shout loud enough.
But shout at whom? Virtually unrepresented in this stirring exhibition are those on the other side of the debate, ranging from the staunchest, most radicalized supporters of the Second Amendment, to those more moderate gun owners who — research shows and my own personal experience bears out — really wouldn’t mind seeing certain levels of gun control, particularly regarding access to assault-style weapons. It seems telling that there’s no representations of hunting culture, no bridge in the exhibit made of dismantled gun parts that allows gun control advocates and the moderate center (which I still believe exists) to work together against the National Rifle Association, which really has, in the span of many gun owners’ lifetimes, drifted too far to the right even for people who were already on the right.
Are we too far gone for that? Are we really too polarized now? So much of the news we get, to say nothing of the voting records of legislators, suggests that we are, that there’s less and less room for compromise, that the days of winning the other side over have given way to simply beating the other side into submission. Maybe that’s so. Maybe any gun control that happens, if it ever happens, will be through the exercise of raw political power. It will happen because the left gets the votes, and somehow crushes the NRA. But is it crazy to think that at some point, people can look beyond the politics to see that fewer people should be shot? That so many parents shouldn’t have to bury their children? And that something — anything — should be done about that?
“Unload: Pick Up The Pieces” runs at the Ely Center of Comtemporary Art, 51 Trumbull St., through Nov. 11. Admission is free. Click here for hours and more information.