In turbulent times, art and its artists find themselves thrown into a space of ambiguity and with it comes a host of questions regarding their purpose. Artistic and political space inevitably intersect. Is this by accident or by unbending intent? More broadly, what is the role of the artist? For Kadie Salfi, a local Ithaca artist and an active member of the Alice Cook House community, these questions are addressed through an invitation for dialogue. Located in the Willard Straight Hall Art Gallery, Salfi’s exhibit Red Guns is part of a poignant and enduring conversation about gun violence in America. Already making art about American gun culture and deeply affected by the Sandy Hook shooting, she was compelled to begin SNAFU (Situation Normal all Fucked Up). This ongoing project constitutes the much larger body of work within which Red Guns resides.
I begin to pace the circumference of the room along whose perimeter hang the pieces of Salfi’s exhibit. These life-size paintings of guns capture my gaze through the vivid, acrylic reds. Many pieces of visual art strive to explore the textural and structural intricacies that constitute the objects they depict. In doing so, the mechanical complexities of the firearms — while also integral to the function of the object — would become, regardless of intention, the authors of the gun’s aesthetic. Red Guns does precisely the opposite. Each painting is realized in a technique that is unquestionably startling; aside from the brilliant hue of the paint, the gun is transmitted as a silhouette divorced from the third dimension.
There lies a certain elegance in restraint, but we see here that such aesthetic potential is amplified by constant reminders of artistic intention. In spite of eschewing technical detail, or quite possibly because of it, Red Guns establishes a discursive space that acknowledges the terrifying capabilities of the weapons, and the intentions with which they are used. The images are juxtaposed by the harrowing descriptions of the weapon’s effects. On the first piece I come across, written in blue pencil, “This gun was used to to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech.” This inscription is readily visible, even at a distance. But, as one approaches the work, another inscription becomes visible, this time in white colored pencil, describing the gun’s model.
Almost as if receding into the backdrop of the wood medium, the white writing eventually becomes the irrelevant; meanwhile, the blue confession that follows it becomes the focal point. In other words, by reducing the visual impact of the gun’s make and model, and simultaneously emphasizing the firearm’s already realized capabilities, Salfi removes the euphemisms and derailments that often divest dialogue from the weapon’s intrinsic purpose. What remains is our unobstructed confrontation with this nationwide epidemic.
Making my way through the gallery it becomes obvious that the lack of other people is not the only reason why is it so quiet around me. Interrupted only by my steps on the wooden floor, there was a chilling stillness that I felt in the presence of such a raw presentation of the subject. Perhaps it was because I had never witnessed such a frank discussion — wordless as it was — on gun violence. There was poignant commentary articulated by the powerful symbolism of the paintings. Yet, there were still questions which persisted and I had the unshakeable feeling that these enigmas wouldn’t resolve themselves with prolonged pondering.
Naturally, I reached out to the artist herself. Removed from the noise of the nearby Temple of Zeus, Salfi and I chatted in an alcove in Klarman. One of my questions regarded her choice of the wood medium for Red Guns. She revealed that as an owner (along with her husband) of a local skateboard company, “Comet Skateboards,” there was already an abundance of wood at her disposal. “Although the subject matter is very precious, I didn’t want to use precious material. I didn’t want to have the work be coveted in any way because it was on a piece of marble,” she remarked. “I loved the grain of the wood and the knots in the wood often look like bullet holes.”
Red Guns is undeniably political, displaying a powerful symbolism of the red, white and blue paintings in the context of this nation’s pathological obsession with guns. However, the commentary engages the audience in a conversation about gun violence while abandoning the directional criticisms that polarize debates on the subject. I was curious as to why this was such a central component of Salfi’s work.
Salfi was reminded of when she started making her art more political in 2007. Her work at the time was done in crude oil and inspired by the oil-fueled conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the environmental consequences of the petroleum industry. While the project was initially conceptualized as a denunciation of the oil companies, it was an oil worker providing the actual resource for her work who changed her intent. “He talked about how he had been working for 35-40 years doing this six days a week, long days, and had so much pride and felt like he was doing the American people so much good because people thrive and need oil… He honored and he valued it,” she recounted to me. Emphasizing that despite her personal feelings toward the subject, she realized there were alternatives to pointing fingers. “Of course there are certain subjects where there is a wrong and there is a right and that there is someone who created the wrong. But I also feel that as an artist, I want to present facts and information.”
I find myself in the gallery for the second time and the silence which permeated my previous visit has now been superseded by the conversations of those gathered for the reception being held. What was at first limited to my internal dialogue within that space now assumed the nuance and dimensions of an interpersonal exchange with the individuals in the room. Some silently contemplated the works, as I had done the first time, while others could not stay quiet about the subject.
Red Guns’ presence in the Willard Straight Art Gallery is made possible through Salfi’s partnership with Cook House Graduate Resident Fellows Jonathan Reinhardt, grad, and Sadé Ayorinde, grad. There are several elements of the exhibit which complement the artist’s original work. To these members of the exhibit’s curating team, Salfi made a suggestion to deepen the interaction with the artwork through the addition of other media. There at the reception I spoke with Ayorinde about her role in the curation of the exhibit. Facilitator of the discussion group “Cookies and Conversation,” she held the group’s weekly dialogue in the gallery, alongside Salfi. Emphasizing the significance of the artist’s attendance, Ayorinde noted that her presence, “Draws up a lot of questions: why would you make this work? What was the impetus? How did you use the materials to create it? … There are always ways of thinking conceptually and not really thinking of the materials and the process.”
As I was seated at the discussion table, I got a sense of the ineffable feeling that permeated the conversation of Ayorinde’s discussion group. “I think it was really beneficial having it [the dialogue] in this space,” she reflects, citing the unsettling effects from both the life-sized scale of the images, as well as the contrast between the paintings of well-recognized handguns and those of less familiar shotguns, rifles and semi-automatics. “Automatically there is a way in which you almost feel unsafe in the space, to some degree. And then on top of that, when you add in what they’re supposed to be displaying, the fact that innocent people were killed.”
In response to Salfi’s suggestion, Reinhardt accompanied each painting with a series of QR codes that correspond to a video about a culturally important event that occurred during the time of the shooting. Some of the codes lead to news footage and others show the cultural events; the code for the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting, for example, leads to a trailer for the then-upcoming film “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
“We used QR codes because they have a codelike element and there is something about gun culture that seems to be in the DNA of America”, describes Reinhardt, “[In a way, gun culture is] written into the political code.”
In the exhaustive acrobatics of political discourse, the victims of gun violence — if recognized at all — are often reduced to a statistic or a headline. In such a situation, the individual victims are remembered by very few people, aside from those who personally knew them. The result is the flattening depersonalization of the individual, in the sense that in many ways they are dispossessed of their relevance to society. The QR code’s contribution to the exhibit memorializes the victims of mass shootings in an unconventional form. It is a soul-piercing reconceptualization of the countless lives lost to guns. As opposed to being reduced to one-dimensional consequences of this American epidemic, these lives can be understood in context of a broader cultural universe, in which they shared and shaped our space. By authentically emphasizing their role as active participants in these events, the victims are immortalized not only in terms of their death, but also in terms of their life and the undeniable humanity that defined it.
Staff Writer Varun Biddanda is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.