News and Features

Guns and Knives and Art

Chick Bills, Untitled, mixed media

Nearly every weekend, somewhere in North Texas, there’s a gun and knife show. For the remainder of this year, there are already more than two dozen scheduled. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that all those shows have inspired an artist-in-residence at UT- Dallas to create his own gun and knife show.

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[sounds of unpacking]

Heyd Fontenot is unpacking artworks from shipping crates. He’s co-curator of The Gun & Knife Show at CentralTrak, UTD’s artist residency near Fair Park. And he’s looking for one special piece.

Fontenot: “I’ll just unwrap it. [rustling of paper and plastic] It’s an artist in New York and his name is Chick Bills. And he actually builds these very convincing weapons.”

Fontenot unveils a polished, custom-made wooden box. Nestled inside are all the brass tools necessary to shape and load old-fashioned cap-and-ball ammunition. And in the center is an impressive set of what look like Colt revolver reproductions (above). But they’re built as a single unit — facing each other.

Fontenot: “This is a pair of pistols that actually share a barrel. So it would be a functional weapon except that if you fired this pistol it would fire into the other pistol.”

Weeks: “It’s kind of a suicide pact.”

Fontenot: “Yeah! Exactly.”

So this is not a typical gun and knife show. It’s not really about hunting and camo jackets.

Fontenot says he’s been thinking about the exhibition for five years. Gun ownership in America actually peaked in 1977. But the majority of Americans and the Supreme Court hold that gun ownership is a fundamental American right. And with images of weapons so prevalent in films, video games and TV cop shows, Fontenot says he wanted to hear from artists – people who specialize in images and fetish objects.

Fontenot says curating is like shopping; you pick what you like. He liked 100 works from 40 artists, including William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch. Toward the end of his life, Burroughs drew figures on sheets of paper – then shot them full of holes. The Webb Gallery in Waxahachie represents his estate, and gallery co-owner Julie Webb (co-curator of this show) contributed two targets.           Robert The, A Tribute to JFK

The artworks range widely over many aspects of weaponry. But Fontenot says that, in particular, he was looking to emphasize empathy – empathy for what weapons can do to someone. A few artworks feature the kind of bloodshed and violence one might expect, notably a brightly ghoulish, deliberately over-the-top painting by Filipino artist Louie Cordero. It’s like a cartoon of a splatter film — a seated, eviscerated figure is impaled with dozens of machetes, hatchets and kitchen knives.

But many works can be appreciated as abstract objects, elegant sculptures or mordantly ironic commentary – such as  California artist Al Farrow’s religious items, a menorah and a tabletop model of a chapel, made of recycled guns and ammunition (left).

And then there are the works whose full impact only comes clear when we learn what they are. Fontenot unwraps a piece by Houston artist Nick Barbee. Barbee takes casts from the holes left in FBI ballistic tests.

Fontenot: “They fire weapons into gelatin cubes that simulate our mass and density. So you can trace the path of the bullet. You can actually see the space that a bullet is going to wreck in your body.”

He holds up what looks like a stunted shrub.

Fontenot: “That’s a 12-gauge shotgun.”

Then he picks up a small silvery sculpture. It looks like a single twig with a fat fist clenching one end.

Fontenot: “I think this is … an M-16. Yeah. So this is the path. It goes in — and then it explodes.”

Perhaps the show’s most glittery object is also its most secretly creepy-gruesome. The typical gun and knife show occasionally peddles historical memorabilia and Nazi paraphenalia. But almost certainly not like this item: It looks like an oversized set of scissor-grip salad tongs, shiny with rhinestones. A Las Vegas crab claw. It’s known as a “Spanish spider” — it’s a medieval torture instrument also called “a breast ripper.”

Austin artist Terri Thomas (right, with the Spanish spider) came across such devices while doing research into female sexuality. She was aware of the echoes of the controversial Bush administration decisions on enhanced interrogation techniques. But mostly, she says, she was struck by both the craftsmanship of the Spanish Inquisition’s tools and the suffering they represented.

Thomas: “That I would make something like a torture device beautiful just seems too simply ironic. But I wanted that repulsion-attraction, that push-pull. I wanted something that we’re not too familiar with in our society to be desired as an object — until you found out they were used for just such awful things.”

Torture implements are hardly common fare at mainstream gun shows. But the attraction-repulsion that Thomas notes can stand for our general response to weapons. It helps make gun culture pretty much inescapable here. Fontenot himself has worked as a production designer or set dresser on such films as The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And ironically enough, across the street from CentralTrak is a faded billboard – for a real gun show in Mesquite.

In fact, with a big banner hanging across the front of CentralTrak advertising The Gun & Knife Show, has Fontenot (left) considered the likelihood that  people may visit, looking to buy a hunting rifle?

Fontenot: “I really want that. That was part of my impetus for doing the show. I wanted to get people in to see art who don’t see art. But I think they should be able to relate to the subject matter. I mean, it’s guns and knives. It’s what they came to see.

“It’s just a little different [laughs].”

Outfront image: Lance Letscher, Imaginary Gun