Framed pictures of young children and teenagers carrying guns hang from the walls. Turn to the right and inactive firearms cast a shadow on the walls of the gallery space. The lights are dim, appropriate for the mood of the exhibition topic.
Susanne Slavick stands behind a podium. She pushes the left and right arrows on a silver MacBook pro to control her PowerPoint presentation, which is projected on a screen behind her. She speaks to an audience of about 30, most of whom are students. The slides consist of pictures of the artwork in the exhibition and serve as visual guides as Slavick gives statistics on gun deaths and purchasing rates.
“Unloaded” is an ongoing exhibition at the Handwerker Gallery at Ithaca College. The gallery space features artwork from 19 different artists and documents the social and political impact that guns have had on the U.S.
Slavick, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University, is the curator of the exhibition. Growing up in a politically active and artistic family, much of her work has dealt with violence, she said.
“I started realizing that violence is just obscene, right here at home,” Slavick said. “And the biggest instrument of that violence is guns.”
According to a 2007 Small Arms Survey that Slavick references in her “Unloaded” catalog, the U.S. has the highest ownership of guns in the world, with an average of 88 guns per 100 people.
“Unlike many other developed countries, we have so many more that are in civilian hands that contribute to much higher murder and suicide rates than any of our peer countries in terms of developed countries,” Slavick said. “Why is it that we can’t seem to solve this problem of exorbitant murder and suicide rates that are made so much easier through the prevalence of weapons.”
Artwork ranges from paintings of guns, sculptures made with guns and lawn signs reading, “Stop shooting, we love you,” in navy blue, all-capitalized letters.
Slavick has one of her own pieces in the exhibition. It is a chain of pearls that has been painted on canvas and segmented into pieces to create a broken strand. There is a bullet hole in each segment that Slavick shot herself.
“I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t scared,” Slavick recalled. “I mean, you are scared of the kick back, not know what’s going to do when you shoot the gun.”
It was first and only time Slavick shot a gun, and she has no plans on ever shooting another one.
Mara Baldwin, director of the Handwerker Gallery, says the exhibition has an obvious message.
“The exhibition is clear and regards itself as a biased exhibition,” Baldwin said. “It has an opinion.”
Baldwin added the exhibition is geared more toward feeling rather than thinking about the artwork.
For a controversial topic like gun violence in the U.S., art can be a generous way to engage with the world and respond to pressing issues, Slavick said. But it does not matter what the issue is in order to convey it through artwork.
“Whether it’s war, whether it’s gun violence, whether it’s the environment, so on,” Slavick said. “And then they’re always intertwined with other issues like gender, feminism, race, power relations. It’s complex yet you have to focus on something.”
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