Jillian Moore is a maker and writer who currently lives in Iowa City, United States, where she completed her MFA in jewelry and metal arts at the University of Iowa in 2008. She received her BFA in metalsmithing and jewelrymaking from Western Illinois University in Macomb, in 2004.
I’ve been trying to understand a trend, not just in art jewelry, but pop culture in general. The sharp, angular shapes of handguns and semi-automatic rifles as graphic black silhouettes or cheeky, bubblegum pink outlines are everywhere. T-shirts, decals, pendants and even cufflinks – guns, apparently, are ‘in.’
I’m going to have to keep this from my grandmother. She carried a pearl-handled pistol in her purse when I was a kid. It was tiny, the size of a toy and very beautiful. Its contradictory form and function made it just as fascinating as it was frightening. I had no doubt that she hoped against hope for the opportunity to use it. She would get this look in her eye when talking about muggers, burglars and kidnappers. She was itching to commit some justifiable homicide. Thankfully, a doctor decided her overstocked purse was bad for her heart condition and prescribed a downsizing that made no room for weaponry, though she is still quite dangerous.
Now I will be up front and confess my bias – not just against guns, but also against the most prominent method of their conveyance, the overused ironic silhouette. There was a time when I could like a nice set of antlers or a chandelier, but no more. Using clipart in wacky ways, absent of intent, is not clever. It’s formulaic. We’ve hit full saturation.
Maybe it’s tempting to try and exploit the immediate dissonance caused by ‘gun as ornament,’ but to what effect? Popular culture is not known for being particularly considerate when it comes to appropriation. I told myself the artists in my community were sensitive to this. Maybe Etsy had let me down, but surely those artists in the art jewelry community who were appropriating the symbols of weaponry were doing so not just because guns were ‘in,’ but for the sake of subversion. Taking the piss out of guns I can handle.
The first artist that came to mind is Ted Noten. If you aren’t familiar with his series of acrylic handbags, many with ominous floating guns suspended inside, then you haven’t been paying attention. Noten’s assault on consumer culture is undeniable, but I wanted to dig a little further and share some artists’ work that you may have missed under the avalanche of silhouettes. Thankfully there are several makers out there in the world of art jewelry who are not simply part of the gun-chic bandwagon. Tackling issues of religion, culture and gender, these artists prove that the language of ornament can be used to create poignant objects that are also effectively critical.
Something I hadn’t considered when I went looking for examples of such work was the hold guns have on the minds of young men who may never have seen the genuine article. Thanks to the ubiquity of guns as toys, they are strangely nostalgic for many men. They also provide fertile material for exploration of what gender roles really mean for men of my generation. In a series of work from 2003-2004, Michael Dale Bernard melts, manipulates and reconstructs the toy guns of his youth with silk flowers and other elements. ‘I wanted to shift the mechanical components into organic forms that spoke of how militaristic, male mindsets are grown, not born,’ he says. The guns, nested in vines and branches, appear to sprout and bloom around the wearer. The final pieces, dipped in thick black plastic, are as elegant as they are menacing.
Nicolas Estrada uses a lot of guns in his work. In his Sin Series most of them have been spliced into the form of crosses and dangle from the end of very traditional looking rosaries. The guns are cast from plastic toys – modern rifles and pistols. They feel delicate but industrial in contrast to the glass beads and Catholic icons. There is no eschewing of purpose in the work, nothing coy about the guns in place of the cross. The critique of both organized religion and the violence committed in its name and by its followers is not new, but by using these objects we are more receptive to that message.
One hundred triggers, taken from reclaimed guns in Pittsburgh as part of a Buyback Program in 1997, make up the imposing necklace, Brave, by Boris Bally. Acting as a talisman, the piece symbolically imparts protection to the wearer. Here, the triggers represent guns that have been dismembered and rendered impotent. In this context, an unvarnished view into the reality of gun culture for a generation of urban youth is startling. The piece does not play off of the predictable fears associated with race and class on this topic, but instead gives sympathetic voice to those who live struggle to find a solution within their community. The piece serves as a record for a program that incentivizes trading in guns for goods in the hope of taking guns off the street and reducing gun violence. Bally has completed a second piece, Brave #2, as well as a public art piece titled Gun Totem, which also contain reclaimed and dismembered guns from similar programs.
The reality of gun culture in America is everywhere. We are so steeped in it that we are sometimes blind to it and fail to grasp what the symbol of a gun really represents. Personally, I just can’t see how dangling gold charms of semi-automatic weapons are cute or empowering. It doesn’t feel subversive to me, just callous.