If the measure of the value of a work of art is its ability to provoke dialogue and its potential to affect social change, “Guns in the Hands of Artists” at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery is the most valuable — and important — show in New Orleans right now.
Part of that has to do with its scale.
With works by more than 30 local and national artists represented, the show has a lot to say about its subject. And if some of those artists make their statements with more clarity or originality than others, the power of the show as a whole doesn’t suffer as a result.
“Guns in the Hands of Artists” takes as its points of departure a collection of 186 decommissioned (read: disassembled and otherwise incapacitated) firearms that were acquired by the New Orleans Police Department via its community gun buyback program. Those guns were distributed to 31 artists to use in works intended, in the words of exhibition publicity, “to express a thought, make a statement, open a discussion and stimulate thinking about guns in our culture.”
If that concept sounds familiar, it’s because “Guns in the Hands of Artists” is a new edition of an exhibition that first opened in New Orleans in 1996.
Organized by Jonathan Ferrara and artist Brian Borrello during a period when the murder rate in New Orleans had reached unprecedented levels, that original exhibition received national attention and spawned similar exhibitions in other cities across the country.
It would be comforting to paint the reboot of the show as a benign exercise in ’90s nostalgia. But gun violence in New Orleans continues to be a serious problem, to say the very least — and “Guns in the Hands of Artists” is as relevant and potent an artistic response to that problem as it’s ever been.
The potential problem with using “loaded” objects like guns as basis for art is that the strong associations they already hold can easily overwhelm whatever other, more subtle ideas an artist is attempting to convey. But for the most part, the works in the show are up to the task.
Sometimes the interpretations verge on the overly simplistic. Pieces by Paul Villinski featuring the artist’s signature butterflies covering and emerging from the barrels of a rifle and a handgun are nicely executed, but as far as visual statements go, they feel more decorative than profound.
Likewise, Ferrara’s own “Excalibur No More” — a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun thrust upright into a large rock at the entrance to the exhibition — makes its point almost too literally.
But it’s a powerful image, and you can easily imagine the impact it might have in a public art context.
Some of the more layered works in the show incorporate varying degrees of ambiguity.
Does the geometric tangle of disembodied arms clutching a melange of fused gun parts in Michel De Broin’s “War of Freedom” represent a street gang, an armed militia, a law enforcement agency or some potentially explosive combination of the above?
It’s difficult to say, and the title adds to the work’s provocation. (With its exploding planes, it’s also one of the more engaging sculptural pieces in the show on a purely formal level.)
Similarly, Rico Gaston’s video piece “Gun Drop Echo” floats somewhere between ethereal abstraction and hard-edged realism, the steady drop of firearms into a luminous pile creating a type of delicate rhythm and melody while reminding us of their deadly weight and physical force.
Other highlights include Sidonie Villere’s hauntingly spare canvas of translucent muslin stretched over a constellation of oxidizing gun cylinders; Mel Chin’s pair of portrait busts inviting viewers to stare into the eyes of two notorious gun murderers; and John Barnes’ take on a shotgun home exploring that uniquely toxic New Orleans brew of gun violence, gentrification, racism and vigilante “justice.”
And don’t miss a quietly stunning photograph by George Dureau, who died last spring, depicting an anonymous male figure slumped against a wall amid a pile of firearms, his gaze turned away from the camera. The photo is one of two in the show that was included in the original exhibition 18 years ago.
It’s a tribute to a New Orleans artist whose presence is sorely missed and a sadly elegant depiction of the poetics of violence that certain works in “Guns in the Hands of Artists” explore so well.