In the Wake of Trayvon Martin's Murder, a Pretty Art Show About Guns Falls Flat
I was almost seduced by Harlow Tighe's photograms. The sepia-toned images of various handguns -- Colt Dragoon, Browning Buckmark, Ruger Vacquero -- are repeated throughout Gallery Two1Four. The monochromatic effect of the brown paper and white, seemingly absent guns in various formation makes for an alluring show. That's kind of the point, too. Through her photograms, Tighe is attempting to change the meaning and associations we might have with guns and take away their power. And the resulting graphics are eye-catching and, well, cool.
But then, I read about Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager who was killed by a handheld gun -- a Kel Tel 9 mm, to be exact -- while walking home from a convenience store last month. And then, this "gunplay" doesn't look so cool anymore.
Now, yes, looking at an image of a gun won't necessarily make someone buy one and go out and kill someone. And the forces at play in Martin's death go beyond mere gun possession to include racial profiling and an unchecked "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law and mentality. But reading about unnecessary, destructive gun violence after seeing an exhibition that essentially glamorizes guns just doesn't sit well.
"Ruger Vacquero .45 long Colt"
Tighe chose handguns as a subject for a reason. Beyond her own interest in them -- she grew up in the South "surrounded by guns," having an almost blasé attitude toward them until living abroad and suddenly seeing America's gun culture as "exotic" -- handguns are highly recognizable objects. That's an ideal quality when you're working in photograms, a process that involves placing an object on a piece of light-sensitive paper and then exposing that paper to light (it's the same reason why so many photograms are images of keys).
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Admittedly, it's clever stuff, especially the piece Flower Power 1, where a gun is "shooting" these botanical elements across two separate pieces. Several other eye-catching works add some corsets and panties to the mix, guns tucked in the lingerie away but still visible. They're appealing pieces when you're surrounded by them, but when I go back to Martin, it all seems like child's play and woefully out of touch, especially since two sources of inspiration for the works are an Emily Dickinson Poem and Elton John song.
Gun art can be very powerful. Andy Warhol made several memorable works inspired by his own attempted murder, one of which features overlapping layers of a revolver and blood-red paint. (Tighe even employs a similar technique here, minus the color, by rotating the guns so that they overlap.) But while Warhol's works were loaded, pardon the pun, with his own personal experience with gun violence, Tighe's seem hollow and shallow. Tighe says so herself that she is attempting to strip guns of their power through a "search for beauty." But in the process, she also manages to make them even more alluring. It's unfortunate timing, but in the wake of a senseless murder and the real, damaging effects of gun violence, these images are too stylized and detached to come off as anything other than irresponsible. Tighe is not trying to be subversive, but create aesthetically pleasing imagery. In doing so, she is giving guns more power, not taking it away.
Harlow Tighe's "Gunplay" is now through April 21 at Gallery Two1Four, 214 Travis Street/ See the gallery's website for more information.
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