‘American Roulette’ exhibit examines gun violence in America as Chicago wrestles to rein it in
The exhibit running thru July 18 at Epiphany Center for the Arts features provocative imagery that assails our nation’s gun culture and disregard for life through sculpture, painting and video.
As you enter, seven guns are pointed at you — huge guns, mounted on individual pedestals, measuring 25 by 34 by 6 inches.
It is the “Makes you want to run out and buy a gun,” installation by artist Dominic Sansone that greets visitors of American Roulette, an exhibit examining gun violence in America, running through July 18 at Epiphany Center for the Arts, 201 S. Ashland Ave.
Sansone’s installation, made of urethane foam and steel, depicts “9 Colt 1911A handguns, 5x life-size,” painted in the most garish of colors — in combinations of brown, with yellow, purple, light blue — that speak to the absurdity of their influence on American culture.
Planned two years ago then delayed by COVID, it is an exhibit that sadly remains timely as our nation is wracked by what the White House has called an “epidemic” of mass shootings this year; and Chicago wrestles to rein in the spiraling gun violence on the precipice of the most deadly time of year — shootings already up by 24% over last year, murders up by 5%.
Sansone, originally from the South Side, now of suburban St. Charles, is among five artists featured in the exhibit; his signature — filling spaces with oversized handguns and assault rifles to transform them into “preposterous shrines dedicated to glorified violence.”
In “American Roulette,” seven of his visually stunning gun sculptures have you in their sight at the front of the exhibit. Two more at the back of the exhibit will see you out.
And as you leave, his sculpture of a cup on a saucer, filled with plastic bullets, invites you to take home that plastic version of an instrument of death, picked out of this most mundane of household items, the teacup.
“I think it really signifies how we live with gun violence every day. And everywhere we go, we’re taking the impact of all that trauma and violence with us,” said Aaron Baker, director of art and programming at the nearly two-year-old Epiphany Center in the West Loop.
Real estate developer David Chase, who with wife Kimberly Rachal purchased the historic Church of the Epiphany in 2017 and turned it into a 42,000-square-feet arts, entertainment and events center, came across the original exhibit at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center on New York City’s Lower East Side in 2019.
That one had featured Cesar Conde of Chicago, CJ Hungerman of suburban Geneva, and Sansone. Conversations between Chase and Conde led to plans to bring the exhibit here, expanded by the work of artists Michelle Graves of Las Vegas and Folleh Shar Francis Tamba of Chicago. The result is a poignant and jarring statement on America’s gun culture.
“Our overriding objective for this exhibition has always been for it to spur discussion and engage the community around the topic, and it does so by provoking the viewer with imagery that can be unsettling,” Baker said.
“And of course, two years later, it’s more important and topical than ever.”
The Chicago Police Department reported 1,386 people shot in Chicago through the end of May, a jump from 1,116 during the same time in 2020, with 252 murders so far this year.
And according to the Gun Violence Archive, 241 mass shootings have occurred so far in 2021 — defined as those incidents tragically claiming a minimum of four gunshot victims.
One of Conde’s installations for “American Roulette,” “The Bang Bang Project” — a series of oil on canvas paintings of shooting victims who seem to follow you with open eyes, some plastered with the word “Bang” in red graffiti — haunts.
“Installed next to each other, they symbolize the endless procession of victims,” Baker said.
And one of Graves’ installations, “A Life is a Life” — a series featuring a real pig heart encased in plastic resin, over a canvas splattered with pig organ tissue and blood splatter painted in acrylic red — is unnerving. Graves went full method on this one.
“Michelle had never shot a gun before. She wanted to understand what that feels like, and how that might appeal to someone. And she really wanted to embody both the shooter and the victim,” Baker recounts.
“So she bought five pig hearts, then borrowed five different guns commonly owned by Americans, and shot the pig heart onto the canvas, so that there are remnants of the pig flesh on the canvas, as well as bullet holes. She then encased the crushed heart in resin.”
These artists believe gun culture and disregard for life have become so ingrained in Americans that we now are numb to it, “the suffering endured by others nothing more than flickering images on a screen, slowly turning our desensitization to apathy and fascination.”
That the exhibit is still relevant since first offered in 2019 cannot be a good thing.
“We thought it was an important exhibit, and while it has met our hope that it would spark conversation regarding gun violence, we’re also saddened it remains timely,” said Rachal.
Due to COVID, the exhibit can be seen by appointment only.