American obsession

A new exhibit explores gun worship, toxic masculinity and mass shootings

“Penance” by Michael Stevens.

“Penance” by Michael Stevens.

Photo courtesy of anri huseinbegovic

Gun Show runs until June 2. Check out the exhibit at artspace1616, open noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

Mima Begovic and her husband Numan fled Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.

“I was 22,” says Begovic, the director of artspace1616 on Del Paso Boulevard. “It was rock ’n’ roll, the digital age, and all those cool things were happening. Yet some people decided to have a war, and even if you don’t want to be a part of it, you are, because they come and burn your house down.”

They escaped the conflict, which left an estimated 100,000 people dead. In 2000, they landed in America, gun country.

The name of their gallery’s new exhibit, Gun Show, is playfully ambivalent. Most of the pieces, from 35 artists, are obviously anti-gun. Muscular forearm sculptures etched with “masturbation” grip revolvers; 3-D printed guns in glass cases give instructions such as “Break In Case of Insecure Patriarchal Masculinity;” a metal ball of pistols rests on a Jesus fish; themes of consumerism play out in portraits of armed Barbies and glossy, dual-muzzled hand cannons.

“What I see here, society’s obsessed with shiny objects,” Begovic says. “It’s gold. It’s diamonds. It’s guns.”

The idea for the exhibit originated with the guest curator Suzanne Adan. She and her husband Michael Stevens, who taught at Sacramento City College and organizes the Kondos Gallery exhibits on campus, were inspired by a 1975 mixed media piece Stevens produced. For years, “Pretty Polly,” which shows a wood-enamel gun camouflaged in a feathered backdrop, was a fixture above their television set.

She thought of holding the show at Kondos, but that couldn’t have turned out well: A shooting at Sac City in 2015 left one student dead and another injured.

“I tried to choose a space that would accommodate a whole bunch of artists with very diverse skills,” Adan says. “There’s not one gun that looks alike.”

Begovic says she’s proud of the roster of artists, which includes the ceramicist Richard Shaw and metal sculptor Gale Hart. One of the most significant artists is Bay Area-based Al Farrow, whose scaled Abrahamic monuments built with bullets, bones and gun parts were exhibited at Crocker Art Museum in 2015. The $35,000 “Trigger Finger of Santo Guerro #23” shows a crucifix-topped shrine for an actual index finger, encased in glass and fortified by ammunition.

Adan and Stevens own only one gun, an inherited .22 caliber rifle they never use. But growing up, gun culture was unavoidable.

“In my family, a lot of my uncles were in World War II and the Korean War,” she says. “There were always guns in the house.”

“Trigger Finger of Santo Guerro #23” by Al Farrow.

Photo courtesy of anri huseinbegovic

Have gun—will play

On television from the 1950s to the 1970s, Bat Masterson holstered a small derringer pistol. Steve McQueen carried a cut-off Winchester rifle nicknamed “Mare’s Leg” in Wanted: Dead Or Alive. There was Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel and The Lone Ranger, Saturday morning reruns of Hopalong Cassidy and singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The outlaws sometimes named their guns—and named their animals after guns.

“His horse was Trigger, and his dog was Bullet,” says Ronald Peetz, Adan’s brother, about Rogers.

Peetz and Stevens were boys in the 1950s, and in imaginary gunfights, every kid brought a pop-gun, wood replica or broomstick. Craig Prisendorf, a 12-year-old woodworking ace, carved Tommy guns and gave them to other boys in Stevens’ neighborhood.

“When Craig got done with a gun, you hoped you were in line to inherit it,” Stevens says.

Unlike her brother, Adan got dolls for Christmas. But even she had a junior membership in the National Rifle Association. In the late ’50s, the NRA infiltrated 4-H youth development clubs, she says, and taught safety courses in rural communities. She was a superstar 4-H’er, and earned her NRA card at a course in the Yolo County Town Hall.

But when she went to college, it was the 1960s, and attitudes were shifting. With President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, gun violence became a new conversation, and she noticed it inspiring Peetz and Stevens’ art.

“We were always thinking about gun violence,” Adan says.

Peetz’s piece “Thoughts and Prayers,” relays an all-too-familiar message: An old desk is decorated with pre-etched cries for help and a toy assault rifle. Bibles are spilled on the floor and more stacked in a cubbyhole. A sticker of Mad Magazine’s schoolboy mascot Alfred E. Neuman is slapped on the backrest.

“Because that’s the solution—just give kids guns, give teachers guns and give them more Bibles and everything will be OK,” Peetz says. “But when you see it, it gives you the shivers.”

Adan says she really wanted to include female perspectives in the exhibit. Fourteen artists are women who have never previously used guns as an image in their work, with the exception of Hart, whose revolvers with chain-link muzzles hang at the gallery’s entrance in the piece “Linked.” “Gun Shy,” by Julia Couzens and Sadie Bills, spells its title with nails and thread using the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s signature font.

A more humorous piece is “Penance,” by Stevens. It shows an angry nun drawn over a store-bought painting of flowers. An added white doily makes it playful, but her giant pistol isn’t kidding.

“It’s hard to stay away from politics right now,” Stevens says. “Everything kind of ends around and creeps in there. It’s a hard world right now. That’s why I think this show’s really important.”

Correction: The story incorrectly stated that ceramicist Richard Shaw had passed away. The story has been updated. SN&R regrets the error.