Triggered, a group exhibition and the related programs bring together art and dialogue responding to gun culture in America. Triggered reflects upon and reveals the impact that guns have in our lives, convening a group exhibition of contemporary artworks in a range of media to comment on the history and psychological impact of guns.
Gun culture in America is an undeniably urgent issue, that cannot be avoided or ignored. No longer at a topic to keep in the margins, it is political! And has seeped into daily economic, and social realities of our time. Guns trigger a powerful reaction, both active and passive. There is the trigger of a psychosis in the shooters and the resulting mental and emotional anguish of their victims. The sound of the gun’s triggering mechanism—and, even more so, its firing—triggers fear, terror, anger, grief, and enduring trauma.
We often hear that the effort to change gun laws and policies in the interest of safety for all is a marathon, not a sprint. But a sprint is exactly what we need at this time, when each of us is called to take up the baton. Together we can unite to make change happen-faster than bullets take lives—while also understanding that gun control is a complex and controversial topic. There are many organizations and initiatives collaborating to fight the powers that resist change. You, I, we can join their forces.
Hosting Triggered in a private home space, SPHERE emphasizes that we all are effected by gun violence and deaths caused by guns in our homes and lives and in our psyche; and, the majority of gun deaths—daily and annually—occur in the home, whether by accident, homicide, or suicide. The Brady Campaign (in alliance with the AdCouncil of America) launched the “End Family Fire” initiative in 2018 to raise awareness to these statistics and facts, and the looming threat that guns in the home pose. Some mass shooters have shot and killed family members at home before enacting a massacre elsewhere. For these reasons, SPHERE has chosen to present Triggered in a domestic setting so that the impact of the artworks may resonate more deeply.
The aim of this exhibition is for people to come together to share and discuss a common ground and an attempt to cultivate a conversation that triggers one of hope. The hope is to arm people with understanding and knowledge of the history of the Second Amendment, the current laws, and the efforts of the non-profit organizations working toward changing our laws and policies as an end to gun violence. The hope is for attendees to consider their own relationship to the residue that guns leave in our lives. In order to contribute to a rippling effect of action and movement for safer gun policies and laws for our society, whether gun owners or not, we must deepen our knowledge.
Art is both a mirror and a lamp, reflecting our culture and illuminating potential ways forward. It goes beyond moralizing. That said, it is the hope that this art elicits empathy and activates a call to a communal purpose: to shoulder the work and devote our energy toward a society free from gun violence and its countless tragic deaths.
The artists featured in Triggered share unique perspectives and range of media that engage the current state of guns. Through their art, they articulate how they have been impacted personally, which relates to each of us as a part of communal grieving.
Collette Robbins explores human psychology in her art. Her work employs Rorschach-like blots. Robbins’ wish is for her art to activate the fusiform gyrus, the part of the brain that recognizes faces and animal forms. Septal Nuclei does just this. The image signifies human touch and connection, both essential in humanity’s sense of meaning and well-being. It initiates feelings of communal grieving and healing.
Robert Beck, changed his father’s name, in 2008, as a work of art, or act, of art by a single vowel to Buck. As an artistic maneuver, it reflects the artist’s abiding engagement with identity, masculinity, violence, and Patriarchy. Triggered includes a selection of these intangible, yet no less pertinent works from Beck/Buck.
Robert Buck’s “At The End Of The Day…” (Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CT, December 14, 2012) appears at first glance to be a psychedelic Rorschach test, décor, or wallpaper. But a closer inspection reveals candles, stuffed animals, and photographs of young children, indeed a memorial shrine for the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Buck salvaged the image from scores of them on the internet, mirrored, multiplied, and printed it on canvas. Disrupting the mosaic is an image of a snowflake, a repeating pattern in nature analogous to pattern we repeat as a society. Resulting in a colorful abstract artwork, a memorial, if you will, to the many lives lost. The recurring image of “At The End Of The Day…” risks being missed in the same way the magnitude of mass shootings themselves do, the numbed-out despair in the onslaught of reactive rhetoric and false promises. These unceasing tragedies and reverberating headlines become the wallpaper of our lives.
Robert Beck’s Untitiled (Daly Over/Under @close range w/.12 “pumpkin ball” slug) is a sketchpad that was shot by the artist with his father’s shotgun. Residual gunpowder rings the central hole, which from the distance appears like a flower in bloom, a dandelion puff, perhaps. While appearing mystical and ephemeral, the truth of a bullet wound is everlasting and far from mysterious.
Beck’s The Family Photograph (Christmas 1968) reveals how guns are too often ‘domesticated’ within familial life and childhood, notably through hunting. These primarily masculine and white rituals are passed down along with guns as ‘gifts’ to the next generation. The work confronts the hard question, such as, at what cost does this indoctrination persist, and do we as Americans, want to continue to condone these ‘customary’ traditions?
Wound Fillers (Loves Me, Loves Me not”) is a poetic work of redemption in which Beck cast two rifle bullets etched with the words “Loves me” and “Loves me not”, respectively, in wound filler or mortician’s wax. If only the act of violence could be rectified with love.
For a decade, 1997 through 2007, Beck created a large series of works on paper, drawings in his own hand of psychological tests, clinically referred to as “diagnostic drawings”. The tests are used to assess a subject’s personality. Using latent fingerprint powder as a graphite-like ground. Beck would often draw over previous drawings in order to ‘trouble’ the diagnoses. The series exemplifies his ongoing investigation of mark making, identity, psychoanalysis, and language. The drawings in Triggered, combine a sense of angst and trauma.
Laura Sander’s work on paper Power Play, a water color painting of a child’s hand aiming a water-pistol at first glance playful, yet the arm and fist symbolize an aggressive gesture with the fleshy tones representing an almost masculine phallic like symbol and not a subtle statement, the double barreled pistol stating that when the shooter shoots the victim he shoots himself, too, whether actually or psychologically.
Michele Pred assembles flags from bullets in Red, Black, and White and Black, Red, and White. The color black honors the many black lives lost to gun violence and unarmed black men killed by police. And, black in place of the color blue also symbolizes our collective mourning over the loss of lives from gun deaths.
Pred’s Security Storm plays on the common colloquialism ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ –instead, ‘it’s raining guns and bullets’ yet an umbrella will not protect from guns and bullets. What or who protects us from guns and bullets?
Sarah Stengle’s Love the Earth and Most Merciful God, nostalgic works on paper, augment antique papers with ink drawings creating palimpsests with ruminations that merge our nation’s past and present’s relation with guns and sorrow.
Mitchell Gaudet’s sculptural works combines blown glass, gun parts, painting, and found objects that at as symbols of Americana.
School Bells are made from actual old-fashioned school bells that were used to call children in from the playground into the classroom. Gaudet’s sculpture hauntingly satirizes the U.S. government’s proposal to prevent school shootings by arming teachers, training them to become first responders and marksmen.
Thoughts and Prayers by Gaudet, hides a Christian religious figurine that typically symbolizes peace and prayer behind hundreds of bullets—a blatant criticism of elected officials and their all-too-common refrain of “thoughts and prayers” offered after mass shootings, passive consolation that fails to stop the killings or bring back lives lost.
Apothecary Jars, features a collection of repurposed antique apothecary jars once used as vessels containing elixirs for better health and prolonging life—ironically, Gaudet has encased them with bullets, pills that kill.
Mantle, by Gaudet represents a robe, of sorts, and one can actually wear it. The mantle/robe allows the wearer to feel the overbearing weight of all the people killed by guns. Built with 12830 (the number of gun homicides in 2018 according to Gaudet’s sources and he notes approximately 40,000 died by gun in suicide that same year) .223 (AR-15) bullet casings. It has a deadly elegance, and a Medusa-like trailing. It weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, so that one can assume the burden of the many killed and the weight of immense grief.
Karen Barbour’s How Did You Get Shot So Many Times? depicts a somber faced ghost of a woman with multiple bullet wounds—a mimicry and layered representation of the bleak fact that women who own guns are more frequently victims of gun violence. In the U.S.A., gun manufacturers market to women with guns that are lighter and slimmer for the female frame, so they claim, and the number of women owning guns is, in fact, increasing, in spite of the fact that abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser. Nearly 4.5 million women report that an intimate partner has threatened them using a gun, and 1 million women alive today report being shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Barbour’s painting metaphorical represents the multiple wounds we all experience from the recurrence of gun violence and shooting deaths in our lives.
Kaytea Petro wanted to memorialize persons whose deaths were caused by interactions with law enforcement officers. Her Momento Mori, 2014 is a miniature graveyard made of countless rows of more than a thousand small fired clay headstones, each etched simply with the birth year of the person who died in 2014. These rough constellations of years serve as sketchy portraits of decades past with families and communities torn apart by official violence. While not all of the individuals were shot by a police officer, Petro states that the data informing her project also included victims who were tazed to death, struck by police cars, or who died in police custody.
Cara E. Levine’s ongoing project This Is Not A Gun, consists of hand-carved wood sculptures of items that police have mistaken as guns, in the hands of their victims. These objects: a pair of boxers, a sandwich, a book, cell phone, flashlight, and sunglasses, are just some of the dozens of items mistaken for weapons on view in the exhibition. Levine records the hours of contemplative labor she put into each carving, and notes the person whose life she was memorializing through her work. The time of slowing down that it takes Levine to carve an object that was mistaken for a gun stands in stark contrast to the seconds it took for the police officer’s reaction to shoot and kill an innocent person. Her art is both a performance and a symbol to grieve the victims. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in its comprehensive database of police shootings, finds that about 1,000 civilians are fatally shot by law enforcement officers each year—nearly twice the number that federal data sources report. And unarmed black civilians are nearly five times more likely to be shot and killed by police than unarmed white civilians.
The following artists’ work were exhibited in Unloaded, curator by Susanne Slavick, with texts excerpted from the exhibition catalogue.
Not all guns are used irresponsibly or with ill intent, but they play a huge role in this country’s murder and suicide statistics. Nearly 75 percent of U.S. homicides occur using a firearm. But far more people kill themselves with a firearm each year than are murdered with one. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the USA. Cathy Coleman’s printed poem, The Last Time I Saw Virginia Woolf, connects the single suicide of a British poet during WWII with the surges of individual and organized violence in this country. The poem is a meditation on both suicide and homicide, inflected with psychological trauma, paranoia, and pharmacology.
Children are not immune to political and market forces. In thirty states, it is technically legal for a child to possess a rifle or long gun. Admiration and desire for guns may arise from childhood imaginations that convert and use broken sticks as weapons—to defend the good and slay all evil. Jennifer Nagle Myers’ configuration of found sticks and branches invites us to question “nature vs. nurture.” Are we born or trained to want, need, and use guns? Nagle Meyers’ title, A City without Guns, pronounces a dream that counters historical and contemporary realities.
Whether with sticks or on screens, playing with guns is completely normalized. Laura Karetzky’s miniature painting imug alludes to a world of digital gaming saturated with gun violence. That world includes Russian Roulette on a cell phone app.
Resistance to the violence and victimization inflicted by guns occurs in other way as artists absorb and respond to attendant facts and figures. In the USA, women are twenty-one times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries and when a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the chances that a woman will die increase by 500 percent. The assault on women is both embedded and repelled in Romantic Resistance, Susanne Slavick’s painted panels of pearls that cohere as a strand, despite being punctured by actual bullet holes.
Slavick’s (RE)setting Sights is a call to re-set our sights. The series suggests a reconsideration of our targets, both metaphorical and real. Would that our aim inspire rather than inflict, nurture rather than annihilate, and question its own direction. In layering several modes of representation, (Re)setting Sights also injects doubts about its own claim and aspirations. Artifice is layered upon artifice, with hand-drawn observations etched by Albrecht Durer, photographed and screened onto real pillowcases, re-photographed, digitally manipulated and combined with hovering reticles and simulated impacts from bullets. Perhaps these multiple and contradictory deceptions, like double negatives, can still convey a reality, like an aim, that is too true.
[Some artists have pointed to the] implicit bias and explicit racism across society and judicial systems. Triggers are pulled less quickly for white suspects. Whiteness bleaches out the face of the 17-year old in Adrian Piper’s print Imagine (Trayvon Martin), framed by a red gun sight. The subtle fade is captioned with “Imagine what it was like to be me.” The draining of color is individual and collective—the lost blood of one black teenager and too many black men.
Adrian Piper’s earlier works expanded the vocabulary of Conceptual Art and Minimalism by introducing issues of race and gender along with overtly political content. Often positioning herself as a subject assuming confrontational stances or adopting passive-aggressive strategies, she forces audiences to face their own prejudices or preconceptions. Imagine (Trayvon Martin) invites viewers to step outside themselves, to identify with someone like the 17-year-old teenager who was fatally shot in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin one evening after he visited a convenience store and reported him as behaving suspiciously. Despite being told by the non-emergency dispatcher that they did not need him to follow the ‘suspect,’ Zimmerman nonetheless encountered Martin. Claiming self-defense, he shot him with his licensed Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a typical model for concealed carry. Regardless of the many conflicting claims surrounding this and similar cases, would such encounters end in death if weapons were not on hand, whether carried by civilians or law enforcement? The acquittal of Zimmerman, along with subsequent high-profile verdicts favoring those who shoot unarmed civilians, produces rage and dismay in and outside of this country. Piper’s portrait of a black youth fading behind red crosshairs is both an indictment of a biased society’s endemic racial profiling and an invitation to regard people like Martin as more than ‘mythic beings’—more than a ‘menacing black male’ in a hoodie. She invites us personally and collectively to imagine what it was like to be Trayvon Martin, walking in the neighborhood where he was staying—70 yards from his back door.
Andrew Ellis Johnson’s sculpture Rehearsal features bookends supporting cast human ears that are plugged by live bullets. Despite evidence from countless studies and statistics, we tolerate a government that behaves like the proverbial three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil against the guns associated with so much damage and death.
Jessica Fenlon’s animated film Ungun disempowers and neuters. Built from 5,000 odd glitch images, the animation breaks the gun’s capacity to harm through visual sabotage—though in reality, no sabotage could succeed against the roughly 393 million guns in this country.
With each mass shooting, there is an outcry. After each accidental death, suicide, and murder, more tears flow. The use of guns by law enforcement on unarmed citizens is another wound in our society. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives authority individual citizens the right to “keep and bear arms.” Yet individuals bearing arms have become more threatening than the value they offer to protect “the security of a free state.” How secure is a home, community, country, or civilization when elementary children are shot, where youth are shot at school, and more people shot in churches, movie theaters, and dance clubs, or simply shopping? We—and our well-being as a collective—are all triggered by guns.
We can all unite to agree that we are saddened and fatigued by the loss of life due to gun deaths. Each time a gun takes a life, it triggers grief. Each death shatters our lives, every day, everywhere. Through art, we can feel the impact. We can have civil discussion to address the complexity of gun violence, gun ownership, and gun culture in America. It has been done before, accurate understanding to come to common ground and the dialogue needs to continue. What should be heard above all the division and debate about guns is that the majority of people in this country abhor violence and the tragic loss of life due to gun deaths. This is our unity in the United States of America. Gun control advocates and the pro-gun lobby can find agreement on this, and civil dialogue can lead us to reform. Although misinformation and rhetoric from all sides sustain an endless cycle of conflict and division in our nation, our elected leaders can no longer avoid taking action to make our lives safer through better gun laws.
As a collective society we must aim for conversation that seeks common good. It is SPHERE’s hope that the programs offered alongside the exhibition will create a space for dialogue and understanding.
SPHERE’s mission is to share, engage, and exchange. SPHERE community gatherings provide an opportunity to engage in conversation on the many questions and concerns that impact our collective community. SPHERE believes that exchanging ideas, face-to-face, where everyone’s presence is respected and valued, sets us on a path to understanding and progress.
To learn more, please visit https://oursphere.life
My immense gratitude extends to many people who made this exhibition possible. Foremost, the kind-hearted Kok Loong Lye and his partner Ingrid Peterson who generously opened their home to be transformed into an art gallery. The direction, expertise, and editorial assistance of Susanne Slavick. To all the artists who had confidence in my vision and loaned their work for this exhibition, and to Lawrence Fine Art Services for their professional installation of the artwork. I am grateful to Brady for the work they do and providing a team of volunteers and to Erica Rice and Jessica Gerber for taking their time to be a part of the closing dinner. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Hannah Shearer, and Dean Rader for sharing their time to become a part of the programming. Angela Hennessey and Cara Levine for joining together to share their creative spirit and inspire empathy and understanding through their workshop. And, I could not have managed without the assistance of Leslie Gruettner, who I call my ‘magical techy person’ who helped me with Instagram, Eventbrite, printed promotional materials, and email notifications.
Written by Katherine Meadowcroft, our SPHERE founder