Review: “Up In Arms” — Brattleboro Museum offers an artful twist on the gun show

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It was unfortunate, says director Danny Lichtenfeld, that the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center’s postcard for the new exhibit “Up In Arms: Taking Stock of Guns” hit many local mailboxes the morning after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

I can relate — the Advocate feature article “Top Brass” (June 16-22), which peeked into the lifestyles of responsible gun owners, landed at about the same time, stirring up some good conversation but also some really raw feelings.

That is the nature of this subject, now and forever. “A vital tool to some, a public safety hazard to others, guns exert tremendous physical, emotional, and symbolic power over us,” the museum explains in its gallery guide.

That’s why it’s worth a trip into Brattleboro to explore “Up In Arms,” an impressive exhibition that contains work by nine artists. Taken together, the collection focuses on the technical brilliance of gun and ammunition design, but also the fraught feelings and problematic opinions we carry.

Some pieces skew whimsical. Don Nice’s 1971 watercolor illustration of an Astroray Gun is oddly charming. Madeline Fan and Jane Hammond provide a mobile and a mixed-media canvas, respectively, that turn a dreamily abstract eye on the shape and look of the pistol. Jerilea Zempel takes that feeling of play one step further by wrapping guns in yarn, cloth, elastic, and other materials, like easily-guessed Christmas gifts.

Other works are more sinister. You can almost smell an acrid tang coming off Sabine Pearlman’s cross-sections of bullets. In Liu Bolin’s “Hiding in the City” series, an inert human figure is blotted out by an overlay of automatic weapons.

Perhaps the most captivating and disturbing contributions are Susan Graham’s quaint and creepy renderings of her father’s guns in bright, threaded porcelain, as well as Linda Bond’s massive, creative depiction of the 110,000 AK-47 rifles and 80,000 Glock pistols that went missing in Iraq between 2005 and 2007— a display which the gallery affords a room of its own.

I was most taken by documentary photographer Kyle Cassidy’s portraits and interviews with gun owners across the country. It is in their brief printed testimonials that some compelling nuance comes to light. “I love history and I love old mechanical devices,” says Howard from Pennsylvania. “Guns are both.” Gwen, also from Pennsylvania, says that, as a survivor of sexual assault, “I find comfort in being able to take back the strength that was stolen from me by force.” Mike, from Oregon, is both a gun owner and a liberal Democrat. “We’re all over the spectrum,” he says, “not some monoculture.”

Substantive dialogue about firearms can’t take place “when one party or another considers the conversation rigged against them from the start,” Lichtenfeld and chief curator Mara Williams write in their introduction to the exhibition. “For that reason, we have deliberately omitted … artwork that glorifies guns and gun ownership, as well as artwork that is overtly anti-gun.”

At first blush, that might seem like a means of avoiding controversy. Quite the contrary. I found the artists featured in “Up in Arms” enlivened by curiosity, spurred by attempts to see sore and well-worn issues from a fresh perspective. If the show discovers a few ways to take you by surprise, in other words, it was worth a shot.

“Up in Arms” runs through October 23.

Contact Hunter Styles at hstyles@valleyadvocate.com.

Hunter Styles

Author: Hunter Styles

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