Ann Arbor artist Valerie Mann has invited you to a cocktail party.
Attractive young women in tasteful jewel-toned taffeta gowns carry demure evening clutches and make polite chitchat. “This is fun!” you think. But then you take a closer look.
There is gun violence-a lot of it- at this party too. Each chic vintage cocktail dress in this installation at WSG Gallery has been carefully embroidered with images of the specific guns employed in recent U.S. mass shootings. The accompanying Lucite handbags–upon which drawings of guns are etched–give new meaning to the term “open carry”.
In Gun Show, Mann has served up a disturbing series of meticulously created objects that invite us to re-think why it is that guns and gun violence have become part of the background noise of American civic life. The artist herself seems puzzled by her juxtaposition of the conventionally pretty and the unspeakable:
“It seemed much easier before I started the making process. I don’t mean the actual, physical making of the work was so taxing to figure out, I mean it has been psychologically difficult.”
Using her sewing machine as a drawing tool, Mann has embroidered Sig Sauer MCX 223 rifles, Bushmaster semi-automatics and Glock 21.45 semi-automatic rifles on party dresses to commemorate the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting (Dance all Night), The Newtown Connecticut massacre (Big Guns Little People), the Charleston S.C. church shootings (Sunday Best). The specificity of each image adds bite to the social commentary.
The embroidered and etched firearms are carefully, one might almost say lovingly, crafted. Luxury materials — Lucite, silk, gold leaf — invite touch even as the image repels. Mann admits to the intrinsic and self-contradictory attraction of the gun:
“I shocked myself when, after many drawings of guns, I admitted how sexy they were.”
She acknowledges that gun violence became more and more difficult to address clearly as she researched the interlocking motives and conditions that result in specific atrocities: mental illness, racism, terrorism and lax gun ownership laws, to name a few.
The idea for Gun Show came to Mann some time ago, when she first heard about the Columbine shootings. This was the first time, she said, “where children were the shooters AND the victims, and when I first felt that the adults of society had really let down the next generation. We’ve let them down because of our unwillingness to talk about difficult things in a rational way, or to compromise.”
Art works, even very provocative ones, don’t have the power to change public policy directly. But they are not nothing either. Changing minds takes time and sustained attention and ultimately, political action. Valerie Mann has taken a courageous first step by bringing up the subject of gun violence in the polite environs of an art gallery. It is the responsibility of her audience to care enough to do something about it in the political arena.
Have you seen Gun Show? Would you wear a dress with guns on it? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
Gun Show is on view at WSG Gallery from now until September 10. For more information about WSG Gallery go here