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Review: Gun culture is focus of ambitious show presented by Dashboard

The weekend of the National Rifle Association convention in Atlanta seemed as good a time as any to open an exhibition, in the Castleberry Hills neighborhood next door to the Georgia World Congress Center, centered on guns.

“Unloaded,” curated by Pittsburgh-based academic Susanne Slavick (who has included her own work in the show) and presented locally by Dashboard, is divided into two portions: Slavick’s traveling exhibition and a local component featuring 10 local artists curated by Dashboard.

Crammed into the modest Marcia Wood Gallery exhibition space, “Unloaded”’s traveling survey of over 20 artists and Slavick’s rambling, treatise-like exhibition notes can often feel overloaded. But some fascinating work from internationally known artists tackling not just gun violence, but America’s deep-seated gun culture balances such limitations.

There is plenty of commentary, of course, in “Unloaded,” on America’s firearms obsession and on a society where more than 33,000 people are killed by guns each year, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. One of the most powerful responses to this dreadful status quo in “Unloaded” comes from Vanessa German, an artist living in Pittsburgh’s violent Homewood neighborhood. A small room in the gallery is dedicated to German’s astounding Facebook posts recounting her direct experience of gun violence, including witnessing the deaths of neighbors. Also included are the yard signs German handed out in her community, “Stop Shooting: We Love You.” The work is heartfelt, eye-opening, and directly related to the actual bloody results of America’s gun fixation.

Several well-known artists also provide compelling statements on gun violence, including Renee Stout’s biting commentary “Baby’s First Gun,” featuring a tiny infant-sized pistol, and Mel Chin’s transgressive sculpture of four AK-47 assault rifles fashioned into a Maltese cross, “Cross for the Unforgiven,” in which instruments of destruction are turned into a symbol of transcendence from the earthly mire.

Many of the artists attempt to either neutralize or riff upon the centrality of gun culture in America through craft. Natalie Baxter‘s funny, flaccid soft sculptures of Kalashnikovs and derringers rendered in fabric use a craft associated with women to comment upon a pursuit stereotyped as masculine, in the process pulling off Superman’s cape to reveal the frightened nebbish underneath.

But guns also have various meanings for different people, an idea that often finds expression in the locally curated component of “Unloaded” featuring 10 Atlanta artists.

One of the prime examples of how real life often bucks stereotypes are Atlanta artist Nancy Floyd’s wonderfully cliché-busting images from her “She’s Got a Gun” series featuring photographs of girls and women — a teenager in braces to a prissy sharpshooter suburbanite with perfectly coiffed hair — each posing with her weapon of choice.

Other standout works from locals include Mary Engel’s sleeping bear cub crafted from bullets embedded into its form, a nod to the recent legislation allowing hunters to kill hibernating animals. Joe Peragine’s inflatable “Breathing Tank” parked in Marcia Wood Gallery’s backyard with its absurdly limp gun turret that periodically rises and then collapses in impotent exhaustion is a wry statement on the very human reality behind strutting, gun-toting machismo.

An interesting work, wonderfully executed but divided in its effect is Jason Kofke’s playful display of guns in pink, gray and black molded out of soap. Kofke reveals a hidden side to America’s truly underground gun culture: imitation guns fashioned from soap pieces used for prison escapes. But the piece veers down a questionable side road with Kofke’s invitation to have gallerygoers pose with one of the guns for a faux gun permit. It turns out even the art crowd enjoys playing tough in their gun-toting portraits. In this regard, they may have more in common with their NRA compatriots than they imagine.

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