The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was first made aware of the “Gunlicker” series of paintings by critically acclaimed artist Kate Kretz after they were featured in a Huffington Post article. The series consist of oil and acrylic paintings that comment on “the fetishization of guns in our country” by depicting men using firearms as sexual objects.
The paintings are provocative and disturbing, but for those of us living in a county where guns are objects of idolatry, Kretz’s metaphor seemed obvious and apt. The pro-gun community, however, reacted as if Kretz had dropped a nuclear bomb on them. “She’s doing nothing more than echoing the tired cliche of gun owners being unsophisticated and unwashed with an homoerotic fascination for firearms … I have every confidence that Kretz’s work will one day be displayed in a place of honor in the Gawker bathroom,” blared BearingArms.com writer (and newly minted art critic) Bob Owens. Commenters at AR15.com were equally indignant, but several posted their own favorite photos of guns being licked as if to confirm the artist’s point.
We decided to catch up with Kretz to get her own take on her exciting new project. She was kind enough to answer the following questions via email:
1) You have stated, “I often experience news stories of inhumanity as a literal blow to my body, and carry the negative energy around with me until I can find a way to get it out of my body through transformative creation.” Was your “Gunlicker” series of paintings a response to accounts of shootings that you’ve heard/read about over the years?
KK: Absolutely. The other day, for the first time ever, I found myself opening up a news page and thinking, kind of absent-mindedly, “Hmm…oh, another deadly rampage…” Gun activists work so hard to make open carry “the new normal,” hoping we will all somehow acclimate to this attempted regression back to The Wild West where everyone walks around with a gun, and the one who draws the fastest “wins.” The apparent premise of this radical agenda is that we will all be safer, but the resultant “new normal” is that our country is suffering from constant gun-related accidents and homicides. The numbers are mind numbing, but, until it has happened to someone you know, it’s easy to become desensitized to the reality of it.
It took me weeks to get over the Sandy Hook shooting. I remember I had to go to the supermarket right after it happened, and I was absolutely stunned, walking around in a stupor, thinking, “How can all these people just go about their business like nothing happened?” We should all be weeping that we live in a country where this is possible. But then, it got worse. After the fact, through our complacency of not changing our gun laws, we accepted that it was OK for all those children to be shot dead, and it was OK if it happened again.
At a certain point, I decided that I really had no choice but to start making art about how insane our country has become.
2) The Gunlicker paintings certainly meet your personal artistic criteria of “a beautiful, exquisitely-crafted gut punch.” Did you mean for them to be both provocative and disturbing?
KK: First of all, you must understand that as a long time artist/art professor, I have seen a lot of disturbing art, so my bar is set pretty high. I did understand that [the Gunlicker series] would likely piss some people off if the images ever went outside the normal art venues, but that’s not why I did them. I make art to process and try to understand the world that I live in, and the fact is, while I understand the various reasons why someone might own a gun, I don’t understand open carry advocates. I don’t understand why anyone would be opposed to universal background checks with no loopholes, and banning mentally unstable people and domestic violence offenders from having guns. I don’t understand why a civilian would need or be allowed to possess a huge arsenal of guns and ammo. Most of my work has a certain intensity, it’s just that when I make pieces that are social/political, people care about it more. It’s art: by nature, the viewer brings so much of their own experience to viewing the work, they are seeing it through their own lens of life experience. I have had friends say they see them as sexy, funny, or even sad. My job as an artist is to make the images as potent as possible, put color, light, etc., in service of the concept.
The paintings exist on two levels: literally, they reflect the interesting scientific fact that the brain secretes oxytocin when someone fires a gun, which is the same chemical secreted when we have an orgasm, or even a passionate kiss. But, more importantly, artists speak in a language of metaphors. When you go to a museum, and see a painting with a skull, for example: it is a symbol, a reminder of our own eventual mortality, it is not to be taken literally. It is irrelevant whose skull it is, how he died, etc.
These paintings are not about guns, or even gun owners in general, they are metaphors for extremism, and the resulting absurd gun culture of this country. In the throes of sexual activity, there is self-absorption, the world drops away. When I was making these paintings, I was actually thinking about addiction, about how the dependence on something, the need for it, clouds your brain and prevents you from seeing the truth. I made the men salivating, out of control, as a kind of metaphor for loving your guns and your right to own and carry them to the exclusion of common sense, to the exclusion of the majority opinion on sane gun laws, to the exclusion of saving so many lives.
There is a point when extremist gun owners cross the line: the entitlement, fear of loss, and insane desire to possess these precious objects with no restrictions whatsoever overrules rational thought. In this altered state, they think mothers should not get upset when they see a few men with loaded semiautomatic weapons walk into the Chik-Fil-A, only to set their weapons down next to her toddler. In this altered state, they find it acceptable that people… people like their children, their wives, and their mothers, are dying by the tens of thousands every year because… why? Because they can’t concede that people who buy guns should have background checks? That we shouldn’t sell guns to mentally ill people and people with a history of domestic violence?
3) How did you choose the subjects for “Gunlicker I” and “Gunlicker II”? Are they based on actual people? Photographs?
KK: It was important to me conceptually that the images were sourced from pornography, that I was not directing my own models to pose in an artificial way. Mimicking the formal qualities of porn (weird foreshortening & lighting) was vital to the mood of the piece, but I also wanted to use the gestures and expressions of the subjects to speak to the feelings that gun extremists and open carry advocates seem to have about their guns, these machines that were designed to kill. There is also a bit of playing with gun scale for humorous effect, as if the gun would “grow” when enough attention was lavished on it.
4) You’ve said that the purpose of art is to “strip us bare, reminding us of the fragility common to every human being.” Do you want the subjects in your “Gunlicker” paintings to be viewed with empathy? Have you thought about what forces drive the modern American man to engage in the idolatry of firearms?
KK: This series was unusual in that I researched it extensively for a good two years before I began making the work, so I have thought about it a great deal. I have even changed my mind/stance on a few things. As you know more than anyone, Americans’ fascination with guns is deep and multifaceted. Michael Kimmer, author of the book “Angry White Men”, compassionately explores many of the reasons in great detail in his book. Modern American men have plenty of reasons to be both angry and frightened… We all do. Jobs have been outsourced. The chance for each generation to do better than the last has died at the hands of the 1%. In rural areas, where guns are ubiquitous, family farms have been put out of business by corporate farming & meat production. People feel disempowered.
Gun owners are not the only ones who are afraid that soon “the shit is going to hit the fan”, i.e., our country is going to descend into chaos because of these factors. It’s just that they seem to respond by arming themselves, while liberals are more into activism, to try to change the problems. Kimmer calls it “aggrieved entitlement.” White American men want that American Dream back that they feel they were entitled to, and have “lost.” I believe there is a romantic aspect as well… American men have this legend about the Wild West, when “men were men” and the guns were necessary for protection if a stranger came riding in off the prairie towards the homestead. As our culture became more civilized, and battles began to be fought with lawyers and paperwork, it might seem as though there is something “missing”, no outlet for feelings of primal aggression.
Now gun ads sell semi-automatic weapons as a way to “get back your man card.” So, by that definition, guns = manhood. In Kimmer’s chapter on young men, he also revealed that many of the notorious young American school shooters were bullied and called “fags” by the jocks at their school. They ultimately proved their manhood to everyone by having their final say with a gun.
5) Regarding your “Storm” painting, why did you choose Santa Monica John Zawahri as the subject? Was there something about his personal story that resonated with you? He came from a home full of violence.
KK: I know that he came from a violent family. That is why there is an upside-down tornado moving towards a house in the upper part of the painting, a symbol of impending doom. Violence begetting more violence, just a matter of when it is going to come out. I wanted to choose a real image of a deadly gunman walking through a doorway to emphasize that, when we see a man with a gun, it is natural to be upset by the latent potential for danger. Think of all the old movies, when they would show the flash of a gun under a jacket, or someone yells out, “He’s got a gun!” Those are scenes designed to instill fear in the viewer, to make your stomach jump. But, in open carry states, no one is supposed to be concerned about an armed man walking through a doorway.
John Zawahri was also 23. Scientists have discovered that the part of teenager’s brains that affect decision-making and impulse control do not mature until age 25. Should they even have unsupervised access to guns before then?
6) Was “Love Object for a Future Trophy Hunter” a response to the shooting of Cecil the Lion, or something you had conceived of previously? Why do you think the impulse to kill is so strong in Americans, whether we are talking about a trophy hunter like Walter Palmer or a “Stand Your Ground” opportunist like George Zimmerman?
KK: “Love Object…” was started in September of 2014, so it had nothing to do with Cecil the lion. It was kind of amazing to me that people were so outraged about Cecil, because, by then, I had looked at hundreds of photos of men, but occasionally women and children, standing next to lifeless bodies of every conceivable kind of beautiful animal.
I don’t really understand the motivation to kill, that’s why I made the work. I was trying to comprehend what happens in that liminal state between childhood, when we instinctively identify with, love, and protect animals, and our decision to shoot them, or even eat them, just a few years later. What changes? How does compassion die? Scientists now know that animals love, feel pain, suffer and mourn the death of loved ones, but I think that instinctively, on some level, we all know that every living thing wants to live.
The commonality between a trophy hunter and George Zimmerman is that in order to kill, they have to objectify “The Other.” They have to convince themselves that the being they are about to shoot is beneath them, not like them: lacking the same rights, feelings and awareness that they themselves possess.
7) Is the “Gunlicker” series going to be displayed in a gallery or at any other upcoming events? What is your plan to ensure it is broadly seen?
KK: While “Gunlicker III and IV” will be completed soon, the “Gunlickers” series is actually a kind of sub-series of a much larger body of work, exploring various forms of entitlement and the need to dominate, that will not be completed until 2016 sometime. I am currently talking to several people about the possibility of exhibiting the series, as well as the sub-series. Four galleries I have worked with have closed in the past few years, so I am currently looking to show them with a brave gallery, or more likely, a non-profit or museum, so there might be some dialogue/programming surrounding the exhibition. Realistically, the whole series is so tough, I may end up having to show them myself: if this is the case, I will likely be bringing all the work to NYC to a rented space in late 2016, near the completion of the series. I have never had a clearer vision or a stronger conviction for a body of work. To answer your question, in my experience, work is most “broadly seen” online, but will be more appropriately appreciated and evaluated in an art venue.
8) What message do you want someone who is deeply concerned about gun violence to take away from this series?
KK: You are not alone in seeing the absurdity of this issue in our country, and feeling frustrated by it.
9) What message do you want someone who fetishizes firearms to take away from this series?
KK: I know what art can and cannot do. It can incite dialogue, remind us that these issues are still out there and still important, but firearm fetishists will take nothing away from this series. Nothing will make these men out on the fringe of gun owners feel shame or embarrassment that their fight to mainline guns without restriction is costing the lives of real people…hundreds of needed and loved mothers, fathers, children, sisters, and brothers shot each day.
10) Any other final thoughts?
Just for the record, I was afraid of guns growing up, as I had no exposure to them, but I went through a period in my adult life when I was actively working to conquer every fear I could think of, including guns. Since tackling that fear, I have enjoyed going to the shooting range, and now, I would call myself a common-sense gun-law person, not a “gun grabber.”
Finally, I am an artist. I am not making propaganda for anyone, I am making art about the time that I live in, and the way I see the world. That is my job as an artist, and that job doesn’t change because people are upset by what I make. If artists were always concerned with who might be offended by our work, we would never make anything (there is a long, well-considered post about this subject on my blog called “What People Don’t Get About ‘Shocking Art‘”, written before these picture went public). Artists are like writers who produce books, journalists who produce articles, or songwriters who produce songs, and we often employ metaphor.
To those who don’t like art, or don’t a like a particular work of art, I would say, “don’t look at it.” Do the equivalent of turning the channel, or not buying the book. To the people who are responding so strongly to these images with violent, intimidating and mysogynistic comments, tweets, and emails: this painting is just one person’s idea, manifested, like all the other ideas out there. It always blows my mind when people get upset about pigment and oil on a canvas, which is so insignificant next to the horrific events that inspired me to make the painting in the first place.
You can always close the page, and never see that image again. I just wish we could do the same with gun deaths.