Addison Gallery Takes Aim at America’s Gun Culture

A thread through the history of American photography exposes our obsession with guns as both tools and symbols.

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"I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect..." (detail) from "Suburbia" by Bill Owens, 1972, Addison Gallery of American Art. The boy's plastic rifle seems an unlikely toy in a treeless terrain of tract houses.

John Lennon’s song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” parodies Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz’s book Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, a parody with a bitter sting after Lennon was gunned down. In Lennon’s version, the gun (whose barrel is hot after it’s fired) is a metaphor for sex (“When I hold you in my arms (oh, yeah)/ And I feel my finger on your trigger (oh, yeah)/ I know nobody can do me no harm”). The lyrics capture the seductive appeal of violence and weaponry that permeates American culture. A timely exhibition, “Gun Country,” at Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA, until July 31, contains more than 40 objects that examine the mythology and meaning of America’s addiction to guns.

Guns are so prevalent in American society that it renders them both visible and invisible.

The exhibition is housed in the gallery’s Learning Center, where high school students often meet for classes. It should inspire thought about how the gun-related images reflect our “nation’s anxieties, ambitions and desires,” as Addison director Judith F. Dolkart put it in a press statement. Stephanie Sparling Williams, assistant curator and visiting scholar, noted in a press release that allusions to guns — and their images — are so prevalent in American society that it renders them both visible and invisible. This ubiquity normalizes their presence and desensitizes us, underscoring how firearms seem simultaneously peripheral and central to American identity.

The show ranges over 155 years of representations of guns, with objects from the Addison’s substantial holdings. From an 1863 albumen print of a Civil War scene by Timothy O’Sullivan to contemporary works by Andy Warhol and John Baldessari, the images strike notes from celebratory (ramrod-straight soldiers on parade) to tragic (Harry Benson’s 1968 “Bobby — Los Angeles” of a slain Robert Kennedy).

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“Coon Hunters” by John G. Ellinwood, c.1895, Addison Gallery.

In early days of our country’s history, shooting animals for food provided justification for gun ownership and marksmanship. Coon Hunters by John G. Ellinwood (active c. 1870-c. 1900) presents a shot of three stone-faced hunters displaying their trophies: four raccoons hung by their paws. A 1979 color photograph of 24 members of a men’s hunting club by Neal Slavin (b. 1941) documents the ongoing use of guns for game and sport.

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“Firing Range, Ft. McClellan, Ala., September, 1966” by Dick Durrance II, Addison Gallery. Durrance produced a series on soldiers training for Vietnam.

A photograph called British Redcoat Re-enactor, Battle of Concord and Lexington, 2002 by Sage Sohier (b. 1954) suggests another rationale for gun ownership by “a well-regulated militia,” as the Second Amendment says. Recalling the “shot heard ‘round the world” that launched the American Revolution, the image reminds us of the pivotal role armed fighters played in gaining our independence. Yet, the re-enactor rests exhausted against a tree, clutching a musket, which seems anachronistic against the distant background of suburban clapboard houses. A rifle was once essential to fight tyranny, it implies, but now a muzzle-loader is as outdated as the tricorn chapeau the pretend soldier has doffed.

The military’s role in protecting American interests provides another rationale for the use of arms. A closeup of a sniper firing his rifle in training before deployment to Vietnam’s Killing Fields by former Army photographer Dick Durrance (b.1942) gives a dead-eye human profile to American servicemen.

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“Bullet and Apple” by Harold Edgerton, c.1964, Addison Gallery. Edgerton invented stop-action photography with his strobe flash, illuminating an image for ten microseconds.

The exhibition mostly refrains from showing the bloody face of “American carnage” (which President Trump inveighed against in his inaugural speech). Yet, a 1964 image by the inventor Harold Edgerton (1903-1990) graphically proves the destructive power of a bullet. “Papa Flash” — or “Doc” as he was known to MIT students — documented (using a flash that froze the action in a millionth of a second) how both the entrance and exit of a .30-caliber bullet explodes the mass of an apple. The famous Bullet and Apple color print illustrated Edgerton’s “How to Make applesauce at MIT” lecture. An engineer who distanced himself from moralizing, Edgerton saw no downside to high-impact technology, saying, “I am after the facts. Only the facts.”

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“Untitled” by David Levinthal, 1966, Addison Gallery. Levinthal evokes the cowboys-and-Indians mythology of his youth by photographing toy figurines in archetypal poses.

Hollywood transformed fact into fiction with its plethora of 1930s-60s Western films and television shows glorifying a shoot-‘em-up ethos. In a sepia-tinted photograph, David Levinthal (b. 1949) portrays an iconic cowboy with a holstered six-shooter. The image mimics a film still, taken at the climactic moment a Stetson-hatted cowboy enters a saloon’s swinging doors. It’s actually a staged photo, posing a toy figurine to question the stereotype of the lone hero with a Colt .45. The dark, blurred style — like America’s hazy nostalgia for gun-toting pioneers on the frontier — targets archetypes of the American psyche. His Wild West series, Levinthal has said, portrays “the West that never was but always will be.”

Bill Owens’ (b. 1938) shot of a buzz-cut, four-year-old tot on his Big Wheel wearing cowboy boots and holding a plastic rifle questions the role of guns in boys’ coming-of-age. Taken from Suburbia, Owens’ book of photo-essays, the image has a lengthy caption uttered by the boy’s mother: “I don’t feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality. (He already wants to be a policeman). His childhood gun-playing won’t make him into a cop-shooter. By playing with guns he learns to socialize with other children. I find the neighbors who are offended by Richie’s gun, either the father hunts or their kids are the first to take Richie’s gun and go off and play with it.”

(As a side note: today, dark-complected children like twelve-year-old Tamir Rice are advised not to brandish toy guns, lest they be shot and killed by a quick-on-the-draw policeman.)

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“Gunslinger” by Carroll Dunham, 2001, Addison Gallery. Dunham’s “dick-nosed man,” an anti-hero firing two pistols, suggests guns are part of masculine identity.

Carroll Dunham (b. 1949), a Phillips Academy alumnus, implies linkage between masculinity and gun violence in his cartoonish Gunslinger lithograph. The artist’s playful visual vocabulary of distorted, surrealistic figures transforms this mythic cowboy into a goofy, trigger-happy aggressor with Dunham’s signature phallic proboscis. The eyeless, graffiti-influenced figure seems to ask: is America a Peaceable Kingdom (as depicted by the Quaker naïve artist Edward Hicks) or will the Big Bang always define us in a violent, male-dominated world?

Phillips Academy and the Addison Gallery are to be commended for tackling such an important issue that divides the nation. Clearly no aloof Ivory Tower, the prep school near Boston considers grappling with provocative topics a necessary part of education. Last summer’s Addison Gallery exhibition also sought to inform students on history and evoke critical thought. Drawing from the gallery’s impressive collection, the show, titled “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance,” installed photographs from the Civil Rights movement, an era about which teens and Millennials are largely ignorant.

This spring and summer, to accompany the visual images in “Gun Country,” Phillips students prepared a sound installation, “Speaking of Guns” that plays in a 14-minute loop. Students voice references to guns in pop culture, music, news broadcasts and poetry. One excerpt from Harry Styles’s hit song “Sign of the Times” makes our national dilemma explicit: “If we never learn, we been here before / Why are we always stuck and running from / The bullets?”

“I am not throwing away my shot.”

The audio-track also quotes the title character from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant hip-hop musical Hamilton: “I am not throwing away my shot.” Alexander Hamilton, born an illegitimate child before becoming a striving immigrant in colonial America, aide to George Washington and first Secretary of the US Treasury, meant he wouldn’t hesitate to make his mark on history. Yet Hamilton fell victim to gun violence, his legacy truncated when Vice-President Aaron Burr killed him in a duel.

In this time of mass shootings with legally-obtained assault rifles at churches, concerts, movie theaters, schools, nightclubs and in the workplace, high school students — inspired by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who survived a shooting that left 17 dead — are taking the lead in calling for gun reform. With an average in 2017 of 42 people a day killed by guns (not including suicides) and 86 a day wounded, a Children’s Crusade is attempting to do what adults have failed to accomplish. Young gun-control advocates want sensible regulation that will reverse America’s love affair with the gun.

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As a 2017 editorial in the Los Angeles Times put it, “We are at the sick juncture at which the mass murder of civilians with military-style weapons not only no longer surprises, but has become part of our national identity.” Indeed, Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than those in other developed countries. We have 25 times more gun-related murders than in 22 other high-income nations.

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“Metamorphosis” by Victor A. Fleury, 2017, loan by the artist, a poignant reminder of the need to reverse our trajectory. Photo by Michael Ullman.

Phillips Academy students, like thousands of their peers across the country, have participated in demonstrations and walkouts to commemorate those lost to gun violence and to advocate for gun control. With the NRA’s financial support of spineless legislators in their sights, students are targeting reforms like raising the age limit for buying assault rifles, closing loopholes that undermine background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks and limiting access to guns, especially by those with mental illness. Perhaps their youthful idealism and passion will influence the 2018 midterm election.

Victor A. Fleury, a Phillips student (class of 2020), loaned a striking work he created called “Metamorphosis” to the exhibition. Consisting of five painted ceramic forms, the series shows how two hands clasped in friendship gradually devolve to a hand gripping a revolver. Unspoken is the mantra of young gun-control activists: Never Again. Enough Is Enough.