Show lets artists draw a bead on gun culture

'Allegory of a Moment 4.2.04' by Sean Smuda
"Allegory of a Moment 4.2.04" by Sean Smuda is part of the exhibition "Culture As Weapon" at Space 369 in St. Paul.
Courtesy Sean Smuda

Artist and curator John Schuerman grew up on a farm in southern Wisconsin. He used to trap and fish.

"And I hunted," he recalled. "I don't do that now."

When he heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month, he was saddened, but not surprised. Schuerman doesn't consider himself a victim of gun violence, but he's been closer to it than he'd like on several occasions.

While he was in college, his own brother took the family hunting rifle and held their parents at gunpoint through the night.

Years later, a neighbor's 5-year-old son found a loaded pistol in a laundry basket and accidentally killed himself.

Someone else was shot in the alley just behind Schuerman's south Minneapolis home. The list goes on:

"Last year somebody in our neighborhood reported to the police that he left his car running in the wintertime to warm up and somebody stole it, and oh by the way there were ... loaded rifles in the back seat, so they should be careful when they go looking for it."

Now Schuerman has organized a group art exhibition about gun violence. "Culture as Weapon" opens this Friday. He said he wants to use the show to create a conversation that is about more than just guns.

'Plaything' by John Schuerman and Nikki McComb
"Plaything" by John Schuerman and Nikki McComb was inspired by a true life incident in which Schuerman's neighbor's kid found a loaded hand gun in a laundry basket and accidentally killed himself.
Courtesy John Schuerman and Nikki McComb

"What is it about us, our culture, our times, our history that has brought us to where we are, which is to have this problem in epidemic proportions for decades and decades without seeing any real progress on it?" he asked.

The exhibition features photography of children playing with toy guns and colorful paintings on target practice sheets. Faces printed on the floor of the gallery force visitors to walk on the victims, blurring them over time, just as our empathy fades in the weeks following a shooting.

Christopher E. Harrison has a piece in the exhibition. He also has a personal connection to gun violence.

"Some years back I was at a friend's party," he said. "Some people were on the porch and some were inside. And all of a sudden you heard these gunshots, and so I ran in the house. And before I realized it, my friend said, 'Oh, Chris, it looks like you got hit, man' ... and I didn't even notice. I didn't feel anything."

Harrison had been hit in the shoulder.

"I guess if it were an inch or two over I could have been paralyzed or something like that, so I got pretty lucky there," he said.

For the show, Harrison drew a TEC-DC9 — a semiautomatic handgun. Then he erased it, so that only a pale blurry image remains.

"I thought that that concept — taking something and just totally eliminating it to the point it's barely there — I think there's something interesting to that," he said. "I wanted to express that we can erase these things from our minds, but they're still there."

'Pact and Revolution' by Jennifer Davis
"Pact and Revolution" by Jennifer Davis features colorful, playful drawings superimposed on human target practice sheets.
Courtesy Jennifer Davis

Curator Schuerman also has a piece of his own in the show. It's inspired by the most brutal act of gun violence he's connected to.

On the afternoon of Sept. 27, 2012, an employee who was being fired brought a gun into Accent Signage Systems and started shooting. He killed five people before he turned the gun on himself. Another victim died from his wounds in the hospital days later. It was the deadliest workplace shooting in Minnesota history.

Schuerman had worked with the company on several occasions, serving as the general manager for a few years, and he knew almost everyone involved. His piece is called "A Counting Installation." He says it's from the point of view of the shooter.

"There were so many things that were counted out in advance by the killer," he said. "He had 12,000 rounds of ammunition. He had 18 packets of anti-depressants in his home when the police came in and found it. He had been late 35 days for work."

Schuerman's installation takes viewers through the killer's obsessive-compulsive counting and organizing leading up to the shooting. Creating the piece took him to a dark place for a while, he said, but he thinks it was worth it. When the Las Vegas shooting happened, "my mind quickly went to feeling better that I at least had something to put my energy into, rather than simply feeling helpless and hopeless," he said.

"Culture as Weapon" runs this Friday through Oct. 28 at Space 369 in the Dow Building in St. Paul.

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