Stop the Violence

Images of weapons—made by arranging human bones—are all too timely at Etherton Gallery

It's too soon, almost, to look at the bone gun at Etherton Gallery.

"Stop the Violence—Gun" by Francois Robert is a larger-than-life photograph of a handgun, stark white against black. It's a generic pistol, shot in silhouette, but it looks like the Glock that's been endlessly in the news, the Glock that sprayed 31 shots in seconds last week, the Glock that wounded 13, the Glock that left six dead.

Even worse, Robert's pistol is not made of the metal of the old-fashioned revolver or the polymer of the high-tech Glock. No, it's made of human bones, painstakingly arranged in a deadly collage. The long bones of the femur form the barrel; the prickly round vertebrae are the cylinder; and the ribs trace their elegant curves into the handle. At the top of the handle is a human skull, a longtime symbol of death.

Swiss-born artist Robert has been working on his Stop the Violence series since 2007, ordering up clean human skeletons from a medical-supply house and delicately arranging their bones into deadly (nonfunctional) weapons. His 10-piece show at Etherton features photos of a bone tank, a bone knife, a bone grenade, even a bone "Skull and Bones," which surprisingly looks less like bones than any of the others.

Macabre as they are, these artworks are beautifully crafted. The lovely bones lie on velvety black, and they're gorgeously printed as archival pigment inkjet prints. Their message, though—that weapons kill and leave dead bodies behind—ordinarily might seem a tad heavy-handed, even banal.

Not now, not here, not in Tucson.

Given the place of the Glock in the psyche of post-massacre Tucson, Robert's gun photo has turned nightmarish. It looms monstrously large, a terrifying instrument of death 4 1/2 feet long and 4 feet high, easily capable of a fusillade.

Nearby, "Stop the Violence—Kalashnikov" is just as hard to look at. It's supposed to be an AK-47, an assault rifle used worldwide by soldiers and terrorists. A skull at one end stands in for the handle; the bones of a hand form the trigger. The bone collage does look like a rifle, but with that head turned to one side, and that hand lying lifeless and still, it looks even more like a human corpse.

This exhibition was planned a year ago, but the opening reception was held on the evening of Jan. 8, the day of the slaughter, and the reception turned into a kind of wake. Four hundred people turned up, desperate to get away from the TV and the computer, eager to interact with the living.

The small front gallery has been turned into a mortuary chamber, with Robert's 10 solemn photos hanging in the dim light. The first piece patrons saw was the monstrous bone gun, gleaming in the darkness, announcing death. Some fled.

It's not often that art so perfectly accords with life and death. On that deadly day, on that heartbroken night, Robert's work turned tragic and profound. His bone photos are like banshees warning of deaths to come, lonely voices in the wilderness we ignore at our peril.

The rest of the exhibition moves beyond the dark corridor to a brightly lit large gallery, and beyond bones, mercifully, to flesh and spirit, from death to life. Joel-Peter Witkin's elaborate staged photographs about flesh and longing hang among hundreds of untamed carvings from New Guinea, an exuberant collection of wooden faces and feathers and drums bursting with the life force.

Witkin is an eminent and immensely gifted photographer who has made a career out of finding the sacred in the profane, the holiness in the sinner, the sanctity in the outcast. His suite of 10 works draws on the form of the retablo. In this traditional Mexican painted prayer, a member of the faithful writes an oración of thanksgiving for favors received, and has an artist paint a picture of the happy event that a kindly saint or God himself brought about.

Originally trained in sculpture, Witkin constructs intricate tableaux to re-create the stories in his invented retablos, assembling painted backdrops, props and models. He photographs the whole thing, manipulates the negative in the studio and then prints it as a luminous gelatin silver print. His retablos subvert traditional religious hierarchies, raising up the scorned and lowering the proud.

In "Prom Foto," a nun has been reduced to serving a naked transsexual who has a penis as well as breasts; the nun is tending to the feet of the transsexual, who lounges on a divan. The handwritten legend below notes in Spanish that the image records the moment when transsexuals rose to power, and nuns became their servants.

"Retablo, New Mexico" likewise upends traditional Catholic teaching. A young woman with truncated arms and legs offers up a prayer of thanks to Saint Sebastian, here transformed into a female Santa Sebastiana. The young woman is grateful for the gift of her lesbian lover. Where others see sin, Witkin finds beauty and holiness.

The New Guinea works belong to Ron Perry, a Tucsonan who's been a dealer of tribal art for at least 40 years. The large island, northeast of Australia, is home to dozens of tribal and language groups. Each clan has its own traditions, carving ancestor figures and animals, making masks for use in ceremonies, and painting storyboards and bark paintings. Even functional objects are decorated.

Yams, an all-important food, are celebrated in harvest festivals, and the biggest are given painted and feathered masks. Dugout canoes have prows carved into the shapes of birds or ancestors, the better to ensure safe and swift journeys. A long, low crocodile head in the show once graced the prow of a dugout; when the boat wore out, dissolving after years in river water, the head was saved to sell to artifact collectors.

It's hard to know just how much traditional life and the traditional carvings have been altered by the new collectors' market. Likely, the art forms survive, even when old beliefs and rituals do not. Some of the figures offer glimpses into private life. A giant bride figure in the gallery, clutching an animal, might have been given by the groom's family to the bride's family, in partial payment of the bride price.

A number of carved figures are mothers with babies, perhaps fertility figures that helped ensure new births or the survival of infants. These figures are rough and exaggerated to our eyes, yet they offer the most solace in the aftermath of that gun.

A wooden figure, stained black, of a nursing mother came from Kambot village in the 1980s. The infant vigorously suckles from her right breast and grabs the left one with his or her hand. (The baby's gender is unclear.) The child is joyful, but the mother's face is grim; she's like a South Pacific version of the Sorrowful Mother of Christian tradition, the Mary who foresees tragedy for her child.

Death may well be ahead, yet, for now, the child is healthy and happy and alive. And the only thing that mother—or anyone—can do is love people while they're here, and celebrate life while it lasts.

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