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In Our Sights: Artists Look at Guns

by Anne Rowland

Guns are a fact of American life. In Our Sights: Artists Look at Guns, an exhibition opening March 9 at UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography (UCR/CMP), examines the complex role of guns in our society through the widely varied, personal explorations of twenty artists. In a social climate that emphasizes extremes, co-curators and artists William Laven and Nancy Floyd seek to expose the diversity of opinion about guns among artists and facilitate a dialog on difficult gun-related issues that are often overlooked. In Our Sights will include photo & video-based works and artist installations as well as Internet links to gun-related web sights and a variety of educational programs.

Whatever views one has about guns, they are a decisive factor in historical and contemporary America. In hopes of assuring safety from crime, nearly seventy million Americans purchase guns. Others refuse to buy a gun fearing that that it will more likely be used against a family member. The passionate­p;and often equally valid­p;personal testimonies offered by those both for and against gun control can lend a crusade-like quality to public debate. And the posturing of the gun and gun control lobbies, each armed with volumes of statistical data, does little to assist Americans in making informed decisions about this important issue.

Despite this situation, discussion and debate must continue regarding the appropriate role of guns in society. Addressing complex and potentially unresolvable issues, while hazardous to political interests, might expedite understanding and reconciliation. It is for this reason that UCR/CMP has produced In Our Sights: Artists Look at Guns. This exhibition follows a long tradition of CMP projects that use the eyes and visions of artists as a catalyst for larger community dialog. In Our Sights attempts to minimize one-sided rhetoric through the inclusion of a wide range of personal viewpoints and a consideration of issues such as the consequences of gun ownership, individual rights, the relationship between guns and violence, victims of gun violence and the gun as an icon and symbol.

Following are some of the artists featured in the exhibition:

Stephanie Cress survived gunshot wounds from a 1993 robbery; her husband did not. Works like "The Lone Ranger" and "Murder with Intent..." are part of Cress' process of coping with this grevious experience. Large scale evidence photographs of Cress' wounds serve as a point of departure for the rest of her work which reaffirms the overt and subliminal powers that are the symbolic core of the gun. Rather than condemning her aggressor, Cress explores sexuality, violence and murder.

Bradley McCallum's "Shroud: Mothers' Voices" is a compelling work in memory of gunshot victims from New Haven, Connecticut. In a gallery of suspended shrouds, the background voices are from the mothers, whose words describe the circumstances of their children's death. This memorial is a new and powerful standard in the realm of public art.

Anthony Aziz's still life images of bullets from many different nations act as a metaphor for
nationalism and cultural boundaries. Thomas Bayard's close-up photographs of a disassembled M14 machine gun recall Paul Strand's early modernist photographs of Ackley movie cameras and similarly revel in the beauty of an object whose purpose is obscured and rendered unimportant by the elegance of its machinery. Dale Kistemaker investigates his own male mythology through a photographic study of toy guns as elements of his childhood development.

Lynn Marsh photographs several women in her studio who are not gun owners. Holding guns for what might be the first time, they playfully adopt fantasies and assume roles which they imagine match those of gun owners. Joan Barker's images of gun owners utilize the vocabulary of photographic portraiture. Studied and beautiful, the 8" x 10" contact prints ordain their subjects with an elegance and privilege bestowed by the language of formal poses.

Cynthia Rettig Pancher examines the naturalism of guns in her own family. The photos and accompanying diary-style text recall the recreational shooting that was part of her family outings. The portrayal is one of intimacy and subtle fear rather than violence. Cynthia Stahl similarly considers the non-violence of guns present in her childhood home. In her video presentation, she constructs a mock confessional voice to whisper to the viewer that her square-dance-loving parents are also members of the NRA, gently poking fun at stereotypical depictions of gun owners.

One of the strongest coalitions in the movement to ease the regulation of concealed weapons licensing are women's groups. Nancy Floyd examines the emergence of women as gun owners, eliciting a multifaceted commentary on how these women feel about their right to own guns. Their feelings-both positive and negative-reveal a reaction to societal indifference to the threat of violence again women and the sense of empowerment that is part of their decision to arm themselves.

In his work, titled "Drive-By Shootings", Andy Anderson documents gun-related violence from his moving car. While videotaping various houses and streets, he reads police reports that detail the violent crimes committed in those neighborhoods. His deadpan narration and distant style chillingly portray how violence has been incorporated into people's daily lives.

Joseph Rodriguez's penetrating photographic review of East Los Angeles gangs has recently been previewed by the International Center for Photography and is soon to be published in book form.

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