The Addison Gallery’s latest exhibit takes aim at America’s firearms fixation, pulling works from its collection that date back to the Civil War. We shot the breeze with assistant curator Stephanie Sparling Williams about what’s in the cross hairs in Gun Country, on display through July 31.
How is the exhibit organized? It’s just about a little over 40 works, and they will be arranged in thematic clusters. For example, we are showing several of Dick Durrance II’s works from an important series of Vietnam pictures called Where War Lives. Those will all be together on one wall. We’ll also be showing some amazing photos from photography legend Harold Edgerton, thinking about the gun as it’s used in advancing the science of photography. And then there’s also an interesting wall, where there will be a cluster of images that depict children playing with guns, but then also young adults posing with guns.
Can you describe the sound installation, Speaking of Guns, that you created with Phillips Academy students? It consists of voices of the students reading snippets from hundreds of excerpts of contemporary music, poetry as well as news headlines, and I collected these over a course of several months. The recordings were made during visits to art classes in which the students, faculty members and I would discuss both sound-based art as a medium for which students could explore for their own creative practices, but then also the prevalence of gun references in popular culture. In the Museum Learning Center, the student voices will actually fill the space with distinctly American words and lyrics that I believe at once overwhelm the space and kind of have this desensitizing effect. … Students kind of broke out into a singalong because so many times they recognized the lyrics and even though they were kind of extracted from the context within the song, they were able to pick up on them and also recognize, “I’m very familiar with this artist and I never realized that there was actually a gun reference in this song.”
What’s one piece to look out for? The earliest piece in the show, which I think is one that’s easy to miss because it’s so tiny, is an 1865 Edward Kilburn albumen print, and it’s just so cool. It’s from the Civil War, right as it’s ending. I’m not sure we’ve ever exhibited it. The show will also feature photography favorites like Berenice Abbott, Bill Owens, but also more contemporary works by Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari. It’s a body of work called Shelter in Plates and it’s reflecting on the Boston marathon bombing, but also the subsequent manhunt of the surrounding areas, specifically in Watertown where these artists were actually located. I’m really excited to have it up in the space.
We all kind of know that we interact with guns and culture through a lot of different ways—in our music, video games, we see it in the news all the time. But to think about how it’s been portrayed in American art for centuries is different. It has been a really interesting learning experience for me as well. You know, I’m not a gun expert; I’m an Americanist. What’s so unique, being home to one of the most comprehensive American art collections in the world, we’re really able to draw upon our holdings to illuminate the cultural, political and social forces that have shaped the American experience, really since the nation’s founding. It’s something that we don’t even actually think about every day. And just the fact that so many artists have taken guns up as a subject in their work is really noteworthy. I think as a gallery of American art, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to engage with this material.
Artowrk: David Levinthal’s Untitled from The Wild West
Guns are a major topic of discussion in the country right now, but how did this exhibit come about? The show is actually a larger part of this question of, “What is America?” We’ve been asking this question for the last several years. Our director Judith Dolkart has really pushed this question as a way to examine the collection and as a way for students to engage with it. Gun Country more specifically explores the representation of firearms in the Addison’s collection in order to examine the historical underpinnings of the nation’s fixation with guns, but also as a way of considering questions about America.
What are some of the pieces that revolve around the year 1968? It is such an important moment in the history of America and it’s no coincidence that we would have representations from that moment, specifically Andy Warhol’s piece, Flash-November 22, 1963, printed in 1968. We show that alongside a really harrowing Harry Benson image of Bobby [Kennedy] in in Los Angeles when he was shot. This moment is just loaded with—and forgive the unavoidable pun—but it’s just really heavy with imagery and those two are the major ones and they will be featured together in the gallery.
What works will appear alongside Bill Owens’ Suburbia series? We also have works on that wall by Diane Arbus and photographer Wendy Ewald, which kind of convey this idea of the ubiquity of guns as toys. There are also three images from Larry Clark’s Tulsa series, which was a pretty groundbreaking and controversial series about Oklahoma youth culture. And so we have a few young adults that are posing, these very masculine poses with guns.
Because it can be such a heavy topic, are there are any pieces where your immediate reaction isn’t fear or terror or violence? Is there anything that kind of puts the subject in a different light other than negative? Other than the Harry Benson image and one by Stephen Shames that depicts Huey P. Newton at George Jackson’s funeral in 1971, the large majority of the works in the collection, I think, don’t really explicitly address or depict or convey negative feelings. I think maybe those are reactions we could have when you’re looking at the images, but for example, [Bill Owen’s images of] children playing with guns, those pictures were certainly not taken for their negative aspects. I think especially in [Larry Clark’s] Oklahoma images, that this is about masculinity. It’s about coming of age. It’s about experimentation. I don’t think that it was captured as an indictment of any of those things—or even of the gun—but it was more celebratory. We do have an image by Neal Slavin of the Lloyd Rod and Gun Club where it is very celebratory. It’s a group of 24 men and boys with their firearms outside of a gun club. There is quite a range of material, and I don’t feel like the tone is inherently negative. I think it’s an exploratory of the history and representation of firearms in American art.
64 Total hours that the public’s invited to breeze into the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum on April 4-8 and 11-15 to watch artists Jong Oh and Ian McMahon install Sculpting with Air (and even chat with them daily in the afternoon). Minimalist sculptor Oh will be stringing up fishing wire, painted threads, Plexiglas and wooden rods throughout two galleries, while McMahon sprays plaster on inflated plastic models to erect the 65-by-25-foot Tether, his largest piece yet. See the final products from April 20 to Sept. 30, when visitors can also catch time-lapse videos of the sculptors breathing life into their work.
THE IMPROPER’S 2018 SPRING ARTS PREVIEW: COMEDY | MOVIES | MUSIC | PERFORMING ARTS | PODCASTS | DANCE