‘Guns in the Hands of Artists’ opens at Des Lee Gallery Sept. 16

Sam Fox School exhibition explores gun violence epidemic

"SMAC" by Club S+S
Club S+S, “SMAC,” 2014. Custom formed glass, decommissioned gun parts and gel. 8 x 13.5 x 8 inches. Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

The gesture is optimistic. The weapon has been removed from the streets, sliced in two and encased in frosted bubbles.

In “SMAC” (2014), artist duo CLUB S+S (aka Stephen Day and Sibylle Peretti) offers a kind of aesthetic antibody to the gun violence epidemic. Built from custom glass and decommissioned gun parts, the piece both acknowledges and critiques the pistol’s dark, explosive allure. The result feels like an arrested detonation, frozen at the moment things start to go wrong.

This fall, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis will present “SMAC” as part of “Guns in the Hands of Artists.” Organized by the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans, the exhibition examines the role of guns in American culture through the work of dozens of internationally known artists, including painters, glass artists, sculptors, photographers and poets.

Pistol with a tape measure barrel.
Luis Cruz Azaceta, “Taperuler Gun,” 2014. Taperuler and decommissioned handgun. 3.5 x 12 inches. Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

‘Guns in the Hands of Artists’

Conceived in the mid-1990s, “Guns in the Hands of Artists” arose in response to a wave of gun violence then inundating New Orleans. Artist Brian Borrello and gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara invited artists to use decommissioned gun parts — acquired through a New Orleans buyback program — to express a thought, make a statement, open a discussion or otherwise stimulate thinking about guns in our culture.

The results, exhibited in September 1996 in the city’s Lower Garden District, drew thousands of visitors and significant media attention, inspiring similar efforts in Washington D.C., Portland, Oregon, and other cities.

In early 2013, Ferrara launched a second iteration, partnering with the New Orleans Police Department, its city council and the mayor’s office to secure 186 handguns and long-barreled guns. Those artworks debuted at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in October 2014 and traveled to The Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado, before coming to St. Louis.

“ ‘Guns In The Hands of Artists’ is a community-based social-activist artistic project,” Ferrara said. “Decommissioned guns taken off the streets of New Orleans were distributed to over 30 internationally known artists to use as the raw materials in creating works of art addressing the issue of guns in our society.

“The exhibition fosters a conversation about guns in our society by bringing the discussion into the realm of art, without the often partisan and polarized politics that surround the issue,” Ferrara said. “Art as the language for dialogue … and possibly change.”

Highlights range from Luis Cruz Azaceta’s deadpan “Taperuler Gun” and Robert C. Tannen’s comically audacious “Four Barreled Handgun” to Borrello’s dramatic “Open Carry,” a large steel loop ending in a decommissioned 9mm semi-automatic machine pistol. Adam Mysock paints Bambi’s mother and a scene from “The Last Judgment” on the breech face of a J.P. Sauer Sohn shotgun.

“Onegin,” by Nicholas Varney, pairs a burnt-out revolver with a diamond-encrusted bullet housed in an 18-karat shell casing.

A gun with four barrels.
Robert C. Tannen, “Four Barreled Handgun,” 2014. Decommissioned handguns. 8 x 6 x 3 inches. Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.

‘Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis’

“Guns in the Hands of Artists” opens with a reception from 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, at the Sam Fox School’s Des Lee Gallery in downtown St. Louis. The show remains on view through Nov. 21. Regular hours are 1-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

The exhibition coincides with Washington University’s yearlong initiative “Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis.” Launched last April with leadership of the Institute for Public Health and the Brown School, the initiative seeks to raise awareness of issues surrounding gun violence and to identify gaps in currently available data and research.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, the Sam Fox School, in collaboration with the Office of the Provost, will host and live stream a panel discussion about “Guns in the Hands of Artists” in Steinberg Auditorium.

Moderated by Terrell Carter, an artist, community developer and former St. Louis City police officer, the discussion will include Ferrara and Borrello as well as artists Ron Bechet and Margaret Evangeline, whose work is featured in the exhibition. Rounding out the panel will be community activist Bob Hansman, associate professor in the Sam Fox School and a Gephardt Community Engagement Fellow.

The evening also will feature a performance by the Saint Louis Story Stitchers, a collective of St. Louis artists and teens. The program will include two original songs, “Not Another 1” and “Gun Shots!!”, both written and produced at the Stitchers Storefront Studio in the Delmar Loop, as well as “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1905), performed by violinist and Stitchers member Mario Miles Turnage.

The Des Lee Gallery is located at 1627 Washington Ave. Steinberg Auditorium is located in Steinberg Hall, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards, on Washington University’s Danforth Campus.

For more information, call 314-621-8735, email anschultz@wustl.edu or visit desleegallery.com.

Artwork made from decommissioned shotgun.
Adam Mysock, “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun (Last Judgment)” (detail), 2014. After: Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgment” Tritych (c. late 1460’s) and Bambi’s mother from Disney’s “Bambi” (1942). Acrylic on panel, mounted on a J.P. Sauer Sohn shotgun. 12.5 x 47 x 21 inches. Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.