'Guns in the Hands of Artists,' a fresh book on a too-familiar topic

Paul Villinski 

Mourn, 2014

Photo by Neil Alexander, courtesy of JONATHAN FERRARA GALLERY


Author/gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara's darkly handsome, 215-page volume "Guns in the Hands of Artists" includes dramatic photos of artworks made from firearms, plus a series of essays by everyone from Walter Isaacson to Mayor Mitch Landrieu to Harry Shearer.  

The book had its beginnings way back in 1996, during a historic spike in New Orleans homicides. Conceptual artist Brian Borrello acquired a cache of impounded guns from the NOPD and re-distributed the inoperable weapons to a handful of New Orleans sculptors and photographers.

Ferrara displayed their sinister creations in his funky lower Magazine Street gallery, where it became a Crescent City art scene phenomenon.

In 2014, Ferrara produced a second "Guns in the Hands of Artists" show with a new cast of contributors.

Mel Chin produced an eerie life-sized bust of prohibition-era gangster Dutch Schultz, replacing the killer's corneas with revolver muzzles.

The Generic Art Solutions art team filled an old-fashioned gumball machine with hollow-point bullets.

Ron Bechet overlapped pieces of palm fronds (a symbol of peace) with weapon parts, producing a strangely beautiful, psychologically confusing collage.

Most startlingly, R. Luke Dubois' installation included a live handgun that loudly fired a blank whenever the police department announced a shooting. Watch the first few seconds of the video below to see Dubois' artwork in action.  

The grimly fascinating exhibit traveled to Aspen, St. Louis, Miami, and finally Washington, D.C. The book serves as its exhibitions catalog.

But unlike most art catalogs, "Guns in the Hands of Artists" is a good read.

The most chilling essay is by former NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, who quotes a mother, Claudia Jones, as she recounts the deaths of three of her children in separate instances of gun violence.

Another outstanding essay is by novelist Richard Ford, a devoted hunter, who outlines his reasons for not toting a pistol, despite repeated brushes with New Orleans street crime. 

Artist Skylar Fein's seemingly offhanded essay explains why he gave up his edgy plans to place a loaded, lethal gun in the exhibit and instead converted the weapon into a bong. Fein's seeming insouciance is actually a sly subversion of artistic pretentiousness. 

"Upton Sinclair wrote 'The Jungle,' which eventually led to the FDA," Ferrara said. He was referring to the 1906 novel that exposed the public health horrors of the early 20th-century meatpacking industry and led to government reforms. That's the dream for a book like "Guns in the Hands of Artists." 

But Ferrara is realistic. "Art is a mirror of life," he said. "But are we going to take 300 million guns off the street? That's not practical." 

Like most New Orleans residents, Ferrara expressed a sense of helplessness after the Nov. 27 Bourbon Street mass shooting. 

"I'm frustrated, in a sense, that we can't seem to get our hands around this intractable problem. It seems as if we can't even have the conversation.  The two sides have gone to their silos and won't speak. It hasn't worked through the lens of screaming vitriolic politics."

"Unfortunately this exhibit and book will continue to be relevant until we address this problem," he said. 

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