On a dark gray wall in Bonfire Gallery downtown, close to 6,000 spent 9mm shell casings form the words trigger happy in glittering, golden, genteel calligraphy. It’s a piece of art by Holly Ballard Martz. To the left of this text, bullets on an all-white wheel of fortune, titled “American Roulette,” rattle when it’s set in motion. Spin the board all you want: The price isn't right. All you ever win is a toy gun shellacked in white.
Kiss Fear, a show running through Jan. 28 in Bonfire Gallery, doesn’t aspire to subtlety. It’s explicitly explicit. But so are the statistics the show illustrates. Americans possess around 300 million firearms. On average, Americans own 101 guns per 100 people. Since 1999, the number of gun deaths has steadily risen. In 2016, 15,000 deaths were attributed to gun violence.
The curator of the show, Mary Coss, wants viewers to let another number sink in: 30 people die of gun violence each day in the U.S. That’s equivalent to a classroom of people who won’t see the end of the day. It’s a difficult image to conjure. Coss’ attempt to do so, dubbed “Taking off the Gloves,” comprises an altar made of 30 individual gloves made of cast bronze and steel, illuminated from beneath, arranged in a row and raised as if in surrender, almost helplessly mouthing the plea “don’t shoot!”
I was born and lived most my adult life in Belgium, and to many Europeans, American gun culture is perplexing and troubling. I’m reminded of this, and of how much is in the eye of the beholder, when I see my image reflected in Ballard Martz’s “Self Inflicted.” It’s a vintage X-ray mirror box with a gun attached. The barrel is cut off right where the engraving on the side reads Warning: Not a Toy. When I finally pull the trigger, flickering letters appear, reading “SELF INFLICTED.” I’m not so sure: Are people who own guns to blame? Or should we hold others—gun lobbyists, gun sellers, elected officials—accountable? Just like the X-ray box, the words seem hollow.
The third element of the exhibit, the poem "Miranda's Silent Sister," is written and recited by poet and community organizer Daemond Arrindell. For the exhibit, they have also been reproduced in bold, black letters are printed on the white background of a gallery wall:
Rights you are never read:
You have the right to a pulse
that may or may not beat at regular intervals
You have the right to breathe
You have the right to be innocent
in black skin
The show gets its name from a tattoo in bold, black letters on Arrindell’s arm: "KISS FEAR” was originally inscribed in honor of a friend. An eponymous installation, made collaboratively by Coss, Martz and Arrindell, is tucked into a hidden walkway beside the main floor. Here Arrindell’s soft, firm voice fills a pair of headphones, while the viewer's gaze falls on a bullet-draped altar that serves as a screen for projections of footage taken from above the clouds, conveying a sense of “viewing life from the heavens,” as per Coss.
These images of traveling clouds might appear poetic; they are certainly otiose. In this installation, the projection diminishes the effect Coss was aiming for, according to the show's curatorial/artist statement: “There’s going to be a conversation and not everyone is going to agree.” But most people who walk into this gallery will agree. They know that guns kill, that gun laws needs to change. It’s almost impossible to disagree with this show, because it neglects to raise the hard truths embedded in layers of gun culture: business interests, cultural and national mythology and concepts of ownership, freedom and masculinity.
Coss hints at some of this national mythology through “Mapping Time,” a ceramic sculpture of a naked woman splayed across a bed of bullet shells outlining a map of the USA. The bullets contain thin white candles paying homage to people killed by gun violence. Each Sunday during the exhibit, Coss performs a ritual candle lighting for the victims. It’s a tally, but at the same time it asks, How can you grasp the implications of these numbers?
Next to the sculpture, a gray folder contains a list of all gun deaths, including dates and location, since Nov. 1, the start of the exhibition. I open the folder at random. On Jan. 4, people were shot in Brooklyn, Fresno, Oakland, Chicago, Las Vegas, Detroit, Clearwater, Philadelphia. Like computer code, each entry has the number “1" next to it, followed by a zero. It means someone was killed, not just injured. It’s not only the best work in Kiss Fear, it’s also a potent reminder that mundane, isolated incidents of violence are not isolated at all.
Kiss Fear is on view at Bonfire through Jan. 28.
Images courtesy of Bonfire Gallery.