Appropriative photography

Appropriative photography received the art world sanction in the late 1970s when works by Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were shown for first time in galleries.

Anyone reading this knows that the use of images sourced from newspapers and magazines has long been a tenet of art. Marcel Duchamp is generally credited as the first artist to present as an art object ordinary manufactured objects. Calling things that he selected and signed “Readymades,” Duchamp tweaked the art establishment of his day by titling a urinal as “Fountain” and signing it with the pseudonymous R. Mutt.

As surprising as the notion of the “ready made” may have in its time, the aesthetic qualities of the chosen objects were sometimes quite manifest in their given forms. Although an assault on good taste, the shape of a urinal is not so shocking as a modernist form, and, presented in an art gallery, this object, unlike many other appropriated elements in art, was actually recontextualized. Although Duchamp claimed to have no interest in the visual form of art, back then, it was possible to see a urinal or a bottle rack as sculptural forms. Because of the functional aspect of these objects and the startling concept they posed at the time, these artworks simultaneously posed and answered the question of recontextualization: Could an ordinary object be seen as an art object? Presented as an object, within a gallery, yes, it can be seen as an art object.” Later, Warhol’s outright reuse of newspaper clippings and commercial imagery to make his paintings along with the comic book imagery of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings furthered the idea that the visual elements of an artwork did not have to originate with the artist.

So, seeing the work of Levine and Prince for the first time, I thought it easy to see it as a reprise of pop art sensibilities. Regarding their work, I’m not going to get very far arguing against an article of accepted faith. Widely exhibited in museums and acquired by powerful collectors, Levine and Prince’s work has been an inspiration to legions of artists. But the questioning of originality that is raised by Levine and Prince’s appropriated photographs is not particularly deep. Simply put, it goes to the idea, “Are there any truly original ideas in art?” Is this a question that really needs much thought? The problem with this question is that it can be answered in a few sentences. I am well aware that thousands of pages have been written about mediation and simulacra and other post modern jargon. For some it makes for good reading, and for others it’s the pro forma of many a gallery press release. To my mind, making art with the rationale that “there are no original ideas, so why not simply present a copy of another artwork?” can be expressed with the making of just one work. Take a photograph of another photograph and frame it- done. Is the idea further explicated by repeating the exercise of copying other works?

All of these thoughts were stimulated after visiting the Douglas Rickard exhibit at Yossi Milo. Born in 1968, Rickard could be seen as the progeny of Levine and Prince had they produced a child together. Similar to Prince’s early work which were copied from the pages of magazines he perused when working for Time Life Publications, Rickard finds his imagery at one source, Google Street View. The gallery press release describes his methodology: “Rickard took advantage of Google’s massive image archive to virtually explore the roads of America…. After locating and composing scenes of urban and rural decay, Rickard re-photographed the images on his computer screen with a tripod- mounted camera…”

On the first count, the work conforms to Post Modern orthodoxy:his subject is mediated rather than actual. The work also conforms to established traditions of straight documentary photography as pointed out by the press release: “Rickard’s work evokes a connection to the tradition of American street photography, with knowing (italics mine) references to Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.”

Left: Stephen Shore, Broad Street, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1974
Right: Douglas Rickard, #40.805716, Bronx, NY. 2009, 2011

Left: William Eggleston, Girl in Green Dress Walking Near Minter City & Glendora, Mississippi, 1973
Right: Doug Rickard, #42.418064, Detroit, MI. 2009, 2010

Here, I think, are a few question that have unwittingly been raised by the project:

If a camera mounted on a car can automatically make works so similar to those made by the masters of documentary photography, what does that tell us about the documentary practice? Is there an audience already primed with an interest in “forgotten, economically devastated, and largely abandoned places.” As Shore followed Evans, so too, do many photographers still roam America, searching for ramshackle buildings and dusty roads. For us living in more refined locales this kind of imagery is at once strange and familiar. Such works have become canonical art photographs. By panning through the endless panorama comprising Google Street view, Rickard has picked out photographs that conform to what have become the clichés of documentary photography.

Is Doug Rickard making art or acting as a curator of found art? Is this practice of selecting these images akin to the collector of unusual vintage snap shots found at flea markets? Connoisseurs of found photographs have indeed managed to find extraordinary images that have accidentally achieved some ineffable power. It has long been known that the camera can make a compelling image as much by mistake as by deliberation. Rickard has certainly chosen well and these images generate interest in that the images have the look of documentary art photography.

Left: Stephen Shore, Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts 1974
Right: Doug Rickard, #39.259736, Baltimore, MD. 2008, 2011

Left: Walker Evans, Garage in Southern City Outskirts, 1936
Right: Doug Rickard, #41.779976, Chicago, IL. 2007, 2011

At first viewing, the project seems like a clever idea: “Mining” Google Street view for art. But somehow it quickly becomes formulaic. “Knowing” references, connections to the tradition of American Street photography and appropriation, add water, stir, voila- a recipe for today’s art.

Barney Kulok at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

Barney Kulok’s new photographs ably straddle the two camps in which the medium finds itself these days:

  1. Photography seen at art galleries- created by artists using photography.
  2. Photography as seen at photography galleries- created by photographers.

The distinctions between the camps are in many cases fluid, and one can find documentary, straight photography in both precincts.  Kulok’s crisp, tonally brilliant black and white prints hearken back to the kind of issues explored by the great modernist photographers- say Minor White or Aaron Siskind. Although their photographs, when first made, were not seen in art galleries, their works were both respected by and influential to abstract painters that were practicing in the day. To this day, though, the finely made black and white print is usually found at photography galleries and these works typically follow the traditions and conventions of black and white photography- typically nudes, landscapes or documentary works.

Kulok’s work continues the kind of photography that demonstrates a particular way of seeing. By that, I mean, a photographer whose investigations reveal the hidden within the visible. Not so much overturning a stone to reveal what is beneath, but for seeing the stone as no one else has seen it. And Kulok has literally photographed stone in his own way. Working at the construction site of the Lois Kahn’s Four Freedoms’ Park on Roosevelt Island, Kulok has made striking, formally rigorous images of architectural granite

Barney Kulok. Photos courtesy of Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

The stark contrasts of traditional black and white photography are employed by Kulok to render his selected elements as reductive compositions. For example a cube of granite poised caddy corner on the demarcation between light and dark that neatly bisects the image.  With sensitivity to the expressive qualities of black and white silver print imagery, Kulok sees that light can transform the insignificant. A brick hanging from a string as an improvised plumb bob, when seen in the full color of our vision, would likely have drawn little notice that day.  Encapsulated by Kulok’s photograph, the sunlit brick intensely glows in contrast to the shadowed wall it hangs against. With bold shadows and highlights, Hammer and Chisel, avoids the preciousness of a still life composition about humble worker’s tools. To my eyes, Kulok’s pared down and reductive images are more successful than those with greater detail. Images with more content become more descriptive and less transcendent. The subject of “Corner” could not be any more insignificant: an L shaped piece of plastic perforated with six holes set upon a granite surface. Photographed as found, the image demonstrates how photography can elevate the mundane. When rendered in rich black and white tones, substance and shadow invert and the dark grey silhouette cast on the granite creates the illusion of a sheet of dark grey paper bent into a ‘v’ formation floating in space. It’s a puzzling illusion that refers more to painted space than photographed space.

Barney Kulok. Photos courtesy of Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

In addition to noticing the subtle, Kulok’s admixture of minimalist sensibilities with black and white photography assures the relevance of his work to the precincts of art galleries. These conceptual underpinnings find little currency in photography galleries, where outside of the work of Ray Metzker (see blog) such minimal imagery is seldom seen.

Mark Grotjahn: Mask Sculptures at Gagosian

Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces was one of the more memorable painting shows I saw last year, so I was certainly eager to see another Grotjahn exhibit. But arriving at the top floor of Gagosian was disappointing.

Presented on chest high pedestals was an array of what appeared to be crudely fashioned masks of corrugated cartons made by an art class of six year olds.  Knowing that they were made by an adult and fashioned of bronze would of course invite more consideration, but aside from the verisimilitude that the cast metal and finish had to actual cardboard and paint, what was the point? All of the works were of similar scale, and while the colors were applied with thick impasto and requisite expressive gusto, the paint seemed to lack the qualities evident in Grotjahn’s works on canvas. At the lower level gallery was another selection of comparable works except that when illuminated by the large skylight,  these had a vivid intensity beyond what could be seen under gallery lights alone.

The problem I found in all of the works was that they did not seem to justify the effort.  Simulating cardboard with cast bronze doesn’t have much of the transformative frisson that it might have had 30 or 40 years earlier. There was also little satisfaction from circling these objects. Trying to read the painted surfaces left me feeling only the color and gesture. As three dimensional constructs, there was no relationship to the space in which they sat and little spatial interest generated within.

For the most part, the paint remained flat, lacking the velocity and depth of Grotjahn’s canvases.  The title of his 2011 show at Anton Kern Gallery, “Nine Faces” invites comparison, if just for the titular implications. The much larger surfaces on his paintings with their muscle like striations and intense colors propelled the eye over the entire canvas.  In the gallery press release, the painter, Carroll Dunham, was able to characterize the work of “Nine Faces” far better than I might:

“[They] are readable to varying degrees from painting to painting in the torrents of colored lines that are the basic unit of activity. […] They weave complex spaces that may really be the subject of the work. Faces are the nominal subject, but the lines seem to pass around and through them, almost as though the faces are already physically present and the lines cascade over them like fast water over rocks, revealing their contours by inference.”

In contrast, the Mask Sculptures seem unable to transcend their nominal subject matter.

L: Untitled (French Grey Pink Mask M17.a), 2012 | R: Untitled (Geo Abstract Reveal Face 41.61), 2011

 

 

Visiting galleries on 57th Street – Part IV

Part 4. My afternoon on 57th St. got me to thinking: In art, one can ask, “at what point does the art breaks free from the baseline character of technique?”  “What is it that makes one painting an illustration and another art?”  I would imagine that the question “is it art?” would not have been asked of prior to the advent of photography. Before photography, only artists could render images. Then came photography and suddenly artists were asking of this machine, which could easily do their laborious work, “Is photography art?” (Many in the 19th century thought not.)

Prior to the marketing of roll film, the technical demands and operational costs of the photography limited its practice to a relative few professionals and serious amateurs. As roll film cameras became more popular, more people could make photographs.   From those cameras came a wide range of photographic results: from impulsive, carelessly made “snap shots”of family members and travel to more deliberate, carefully crafted, technically skilled prints.

Those who purchased sophisticated equipment and were ready to devote time, effort and expense might master the techniques and at the very least produce superior quality photographs to those using basic cameras.  For some the expertly made photograph might be accorded respect over the ineptly made photograph, but of course technique alone does not make art. More often, though, the many undistinguished images from 150 years of photographic practice may have been equally the results of poor technique and aesthetic failings, whatever they might be. The sophistication of cameras is now so advanced that smart phones can easily produce vivid high quality images under all manner of technically challenging circumstances.  As a result, many more individuals are making many more photographs.   In addition, there are all sorts of filters to make images more “artistic” by using APPS such as Hipstamatic. As painters asked, “is photography art,” so long ago, today, with the ubiquity of digital cameras, the question arises, “Are all of these photographs, being made with so many cameras, art?”

Are photographs of unfamiliar scenes art, simply because they describe that which we haven’t seen with our own eyes? For example, are the extraordinary photographs taken on Mars by Curiosity Rover art or are they technical reports conveying only the nature of the Martian Landscape as seen in the way characteristic of its camera?  That photographic hardware has evolved to the degree that it no longer needs human control to make imagery suggests that human judgment will be very necessary for distinctive results.

Getting back to the artists that prompted these musings: In the shows of Metzker, Mann and Sheikh, their choice of technique and the particular way in which they use it can clearly be seen to have been integrated by their art. Their techniques were hard won.  But difficulty does not automatically elevate one’s efforts to art. Fazal Sheikh makes digital prints- a simple technique, but the results are richly engaging images. The conscious decisions that these artists make are clearly manifest in their results.  It’s great art when the artist’s sensibility takes primacy over technique and their art reveals a particular vision.

Visiting galleries on 57th Street – Part III

Part 3. On view at Houk Gallery is a new body of work by Sally Mann. Mann continues with her use of ancient photographic processes, in this case, ambrotype photography.  More than a decade ago, Mann began working with the difficult 19th century photographic process, wet plate collodion, producing photographs of Civil War Battlefields with had an emphatically elegiac quality. This feeling was undoubtedly produced by the murky soft focus prints that were characteristic of the wet plate process. Our collective image consciousness knows the brown and grey tone palette of the early photographic processes, and our associations are with the olden days. PBS just broadcast Ric Burns’ Death and the Civil War, a documentary making liberal use of mottled, cracked and blurred glass plate photographs of that tragedy. Mann’s civil war battlefield photographs could be seen as contemporary affectations of those photos.

Left: Ambrotype, Photographer Unknown – Right: Ambrotype of Abraham Lincoln by Preston Butler

Since the 1970’s, contemporary use of 19th Century photographic processes has been a pursuit of many photographers. A Google image search of wet plate collodion photographs yields “About 75,300 results (0.36 seconds),” most made in the 21st century, many evoking those same feelings of nostalgia of actual 19th century photographs. In distinction, though, Mann’s practice is highly expressive and evolved.

This show is comprised solely of self-portraits. In these works, the technique creates the mood. Like her collodion images, these works are likened in the press release to  “discards from a mid-nineteenth-century photo studio – plates flawed by the sitter’s movement or the medium’s unstable actions, of which they present a catalogue: pitting, scarring, scratching, streaking, graininess, blurriness, erosion, fading, haziness, delamination, over-exposure, and under-exposure.” Mann hasn’t simply applied 19th century technique to her contemporary practice; she has reinvented the process by presenting the glass plate images upon black glass instead of clear. She has also applied the 20th century sensibility of seriality to her presentation by arranging multiple glass plates in grids. Clearly inspired by the nostalgic qualities of 19th century processes, Mann has used what would have been considered faults in photographic processing to expressive effect. Her own visage peers out through a clouded, scratched veil of a peeling photographic emulsion. It’s as if we see her face and her torso just behind an extremely dirty window. The effect is one of decay and mortality.

Sally Mann – Untitled (Self-Portraits), 2006-12

At Pace MacGill Gallery, Fazal Sheikh’s work also examines life and death. Traveling far from the cities of New York and Zurich, in which he lives, he has photographed the northern Indian city of Varanasi, located on the Ganges River. Like Varanese, a site that has drawn pilgrims over the ages, India draws westerners to make their pilgrimages in search of visual enlightenment. Notwithstanding their vivid images of a wondrous and unfamiliar land, many are unable to bring back more than scenes from their exotic vacations. The 34 pigment prints on display, Sheikh’s first works in color,  have captured an essence in this subject that would have eluded many a photographer. According to the press release, Sheikh seeks to “visualize the spiritual concept of ether…” I found the delicately printed works captivating. It wasn’t until I began writing about the show did I realize how small the actual prints are- 5×7” and 5×7”. These days, we are so accustomed to seeing jumbo prints (I.E. The Richter show) at galleries, it is astonishing how powerful a finely honed artwork can be even at modest scale. Like Sally Mann’s show, Sheikh’s imagery also alludes to death. Very different than the 19th century process of Mann, Sheikh appears to be using advanced photographic equipment and materials. His pigment printing process appears to offer Sheikh a richly expressive palette. The images are somewhat dark and at the same time very luminous. Lacking any noticeable defects, they demonstrate a mastery of technique. As a visitor to the far off land of his subject, it is apparent that he is able to see beyond the obvious Indian exoticism; his observations are sensitive and intimate.

Fazal Sheikh – Either, 2008-2011

Both Mann and Sheikh’s work transport the viewer to a place of their own creation. Mann has photographed herself at home and Sheikh has photographed a more exotic subject, far from home. Mann uses an ancient technique; Sheikh uses contemporary technique. Both artists have recognized qualities of their respective techniques and have distilled singular visions through their deployment.

Visiting galleries on 57th Street – Part I & II

A Saturday afternoon (September 22nd) spent at the galleries on 57th Street was satisfying. I saw mostly photo-based work.  Four shows inspired my thoughts: Gerhard Richter; Ray Metzker; Sally Mann and Fazel Sheik. My comments will be posted in 3 installments.

Part 1. The first stop was the Gerhard Richter exhibition at Marianne Goodman.

Seen from afar, these large-scale works (the biggest are approximately 7 feet high by 20 long), beckon the viewer for a closer view of their striped surfaces. At times the colossal scale of art found in the realm of the blue chip galleries might be the only distinguishing factor between greatness and mediocrity.  In this case, close viewing redeems the work. As I walked closer to each perfect, matt finished panel, my visual field began to vibrate. The press release explains,  “Using computer technique to generate digital files, Richter developed “a display of more than 4000 patterns… into an ever more linear pictorial plane of 8,190 refined striations.” Moving still closer, the flatness of the picture plane became decidedly undulant. I approached each work and was rewarded with the same dizzying optical payout. My companion, however, was unimpressed by what she dismissed as Photoshop gimmickry, likening the results to Paul Smith shopping bags. She has a point. When seen at similar scale, what is the difference? I left the gallery with mixed feelings. Is a mere size displacement all that is needed to make art?

Left: Gerhard Richter – 925-1 STRIP, 2012 | Right: Paul Smith’s Shopping Bag

Part 2. On view at Laurence Miller Gallery, was Ray Metzker’s Pictus Interruptus series. Metzker’s entire oeuvre, spanning more than 60 years should be known to many readers for crisp, gemlike black and white studies of highlight and shadow as well as multiple frame composite assemblages. The Pictus Interruptus series, dating from 1977 is so unconventional, that I must confess to “not getting it” when I saw them hanging at the Light Gallery back in the day. By 1999, I was able to appreciate what Metzker was up to when I saw Pictus Interruptus (80CQ32), 1980 at Laurence Miller gallery. Seeing a comprehensive selection from the entire series on Saturday, I thought the work to be more inventive than much of the Photoshop based work being produced today. Using only a camera and film, Metzker plumbs the depths of pictorial space. Employing his visual intelligence and awareness of the nature of photographic depiction, Metzker set about to construct abstract spatial illusions.

Some might think that these photographs are about nothing and in fact, virtually no recognizable objects can be seen in these works.  These reductivist photographs, depict only tone, line, highlight and shadow, certainly the stuff of abstract photography through the ages. What distinguishes these images is Metzker’s willful defiance of the camera’s optical representation. Considering that cameras are generally used to encapsulate a view of that which it is pointed at, (more or less) the camera preserves that sight. What the camera sees is what we get.  Normally, the camera user composes images that are focused and properly exposed. This is particularly so with today’s automatic digital cameras.

Ray Metzker – Pictus Interruptus (80CQ32), 1980

The cliché, “Rules are made to be broken” has certainly been the case in the history of photography and innumerable and extraordinary photographs have been made that are not focused or properly exposed-intentionally or otherwise.  In this series, Metzker deliberately placed elements such as sheets of cardboard into the field of view of his camera. The elements, placed much closer to the camera than the distance for which the lens was focused do not “render” as objects, instead they obscure much of the what might be contained in rectangle of the image, in effect floating as white or grey diaphanous shapes through which glimpses of properly exposed and focused surfaces can be seen. The out of focus areas and strong diagonals of white and grey juxtaposed against darker, clearly rendered darker textures create a sense of deeper space than that typically seen in photographs. The effect is confounding.

Stay tuned for part 3…

Lise Sarfati at Yossi Milo Gallery

“On Hollywood” at Yossi Milo, features photographs about what the gallery press release describes as “women who were lured by their dreams of success in Hollywood, but who now struggle against harsher realities” The text mentions Hollywood’s “great anti-heroines of films” as an inspiration for the imagery.

In viewing the show, I immediately was reminded of Cindy Sherman and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. The work of these two artists can be seen as the first “mining” of Hollywood depictions of the female. In Sherman’s film stills she effectively made what appeared to be promotional still images for ‘old’ movies using herself as the model to portray “The sixty-nine solitary heroines (who) map a particular constellation of fictional femininity that took hold in postwar America,” (From the Museum of Modern Art website). Philip-Lorca diCorcia and his male prostitutes echoed similar imagery, with the roles played out with irony by real male prostitutes whom were paid to pose. Both artists “staged” their photographs and the results were considered to be “fictions.”and in the argot of post modernism, these images were seen as, among other issues, questioning photographic reality.

In Safarti’s work, it appears as if the artist was looking to remake the imagery that inspired Sherman and diCorcia’s work and remake their work at the same time. So too, do the leggy women posing with their far off gazes, hardened stares, and cigarettes all evocatively posed “on street corners, bits of sidewalks, parking lots and corner stores, (and) banal locations.” One image in particular Vinny-Ann, Hollywood & Highland, 2010 assumes a remarkably similar composition to Cindy Sherman’s photo.

Crisse, 6722 Sunset Blvd, 2010 and Malaïka #13, 2010 both look very much like diCorcia’s photographs. Sarfati’s photographs present strong likenesses, replete with drama and scenic atmosphere.

All the ingredients are there for what look to be great photographs, yet they all look too familiar. Having rebaked Hollywood clichés without the leavening added by such artists as diCorcia or Sherman, these images do not rise to the level of the work they mimic. Sarfati’s images allow the photographer, subject and viewer alike, to partake yet again in the stylized representations of the louche life.

Gun Loving Americans

As has happened all too many times, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado many want to know, how is that an ordinary (or a not so ordinary) individual can own the same high powered semiautomatic guns used by soldiers and police?  If I may speak for the city dwellers I know, the concept of gun ownership might be a hunting rifle or a shotgun. Until recently I knew of not one New Yorker who owned a gun. In New York, few conversations even mention guns.

Growing up in the suburbs and attending summer camp exposed me to gun culture such that as a teenager, I had nagged my parents until they permitted me to own a 22-caliber rifle.  Its use, limited to target practice, was always with parental permission. The bolt and ammunition were both hidden away so that I could never use it without my father being on premises.  In time, I became more aware of the senseless gun violence of our society and I began to rethink the idea of owning a firearm. About the age of 17, I sold the rifle back to the gun shop and used the proceeds to buy some more photography equipment.

Today my arsenal is limited to an installation of 20 different red training handgun models which are mounted on the wall of above the fireplace as my ironic riff on the traditional musket mounted over the fireplace mantle.

But with my recent subscription to Cable TV, I have been reintroduced to gun culture’s many shapes and forms. Watching with an explorer’s fascination for the unknown, I have had startling revelations about the gun interests of Americans.  Not satisfied with rifles and shotguns for hunting or target practice, their taste in firearms is more catholic.  Americans have a great fascination for military pistols and assault rifles.  There are plenty of shows celebrating military snipers and associated weaponry on The History Channel. The Outdoor Channel has at least a dozen gun related programs, including: Babes with Bullets, Choose Your Weapon and Gun Nuts.

Two family oriented gun shows on Discovery Channel are regular viewing for me! In Sons of Guns, Will Hayden, father and daughter, Steph own Red Jacket Arms, a Baton Rouge LA. gun shop staffed by what we city slickers might characterize as rednecks. In many episodes Will directs his crew to modify military surplus armaments such as assault rifles, flame throwers or anti aircraft guns. Typically, a customer of the shop comes in with a military surplus weapon, which had been rendered inoperable so that it could be civilian owned. A good portion of the show would dramatize the procedures necessary to restore functionality to the weapon, the sourcing of ammunition and a subsequent shooting party in the woods somewhere. Each show ends with a fiery explosion, high fives, and hoots and hollers.

If the cast of Sons of Guns is too country for some, American Guns presents the more suburban apple pie Wyatt family owned gun shop in Colorado called Gunsmoke. The show, first broadcast at least one television season later, is remarkably similar to Sons of Guns, except that the cast is more wholesome and photogenic. Whereas Will Hayden, paunchy and ill-kempt, his raccoon eyed daughter and staff converse in drawling country colloquialisms, the Wyatt family is much more tidy and perky.  Family head and owner of the business, ex police chief Rick Wyatt, dressed in Gunsmoke custom printed polo shirts and neat blue jeans enthusiastically dispenses gunsmithing technique, business advice and family values to his wife, two children and store staff.  His wife Renee and daughter Paige, conventionally pretty, with blond hair, eye makeup and ample breasts sheathed in leotards play active rolls in the running of the business.  The soft spoken and obedient son, Kurt, works for his father as a gun engraver and also participates in the trading of guns.

The two programs seem to serve different customer bases. Red Jacket Arms has a down home and military veteran clientele, while Gunsmoke’s patrons are often wealthy Coloradoans living in huge mansions.  In these shows, the question has never been raised about the propriety of civilian ownership of any of these pure military weapons.  A customer comes in with a demilled (the US Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms requirement that the weapon be cut into pieces) WW 2 German machinegun and Red Jacket makes it operational and fully automatic. Thanks to Gunsmoke, a young woman, purportedly a competition shooter, goes home with a grenade launcher mounted to her M-16 assault rifle. Red Jacket Arms fulfils the wish of a customer to have the same kind of shotgun with silencer as used in the film, No Country for Old Men. These gun merchants fulfill customers’ dreams- however extreme.

If the casts of the two shows represent different demographic strata, the binding interest of guns would likely draw the same viewers to both programs. Anyway, the featured guns might seem more appealing than some of the cast members who often snipe (verbally) at each other.  As common with reality shows, often times there is suspense about whether or not critical tasks can be completed on time. Mistakes are made and periodic tensions and conflicts amongst the men of both gun shops arise. Their occasional outbursts of anger and hostility for each other contrasts their exclamations of love for guns, suggesting that they too prefer the weapons to each other And it’s not only testosterone: Renee, Paige and Steph are also very demonstrative of their love for guns in word (typically,”that is so bad-ass) and deed, blasting away with all manner of weaponry.  For the less macho female viewers, both shows have featured femme weapons painted with pink accents individually developed by Paige and Steph. One American Guns episode featured a husband and his gun averse wife shopping for matching his and hers pistols. Cajoled by her man, she attended the Gunsmoke training course and the episode ended showing her happy with her own  pink and white revolver.

American Guns and Sons of Guns demonstrate individuals having their gun fantasies made real. Whether one customer wants a Civil War cannon built or another wants a WW2 AK-AK gun, these ingenious craftsmen will figure out a way to satisfy their wishes. In this TV world, the destructive potential of these weapons is limited to the frisson of seeing inanimate objects being destroyed by the newly completed weapon. Filmed in high definition and high-speed video, the weapons are presented as seductively as Paige Wyatt in short shorts.  Close-up shots of an M-16 rifle on full auto ejecting shiny brass shells in slow motion or images of muzzle flash followed by the actual bullet leaving the barrel are the money shots of this gun porn.  Usually featuring two different weapon stories, every show ends with shit being blown up, the exploded targets shown from at least two separate angles and one slow motion shot. After the smoke clears, the gunsmiths, and customers, all spent, are pleasantly satisfied.

These shows celebrate gun ownership in America. By their telling, it’s the American way and to prove it- guns are wrapped in American flags (some customers have gone home with guns than have been painted with stars and stripes). Veterans, good old boys, retired folk, the wealthy, all own guns- and much more than a rifle and shotgun for target practice or hunting.

It’s a great country! Workers at Gunsmoke and Red Jacket Arms declaim their love for job and guns..Their customers love their guns- sometimes promiscuously- several episodes of American Guns have visited collectors with scores of weapons. The four-gun arsenal of James Holmes (the Aurora, Colorado, merely 20 minutes drive from the Gunsmoke store shooter) is paltry when compared to the collections shown on TV.

As do shows on TV celebrate food, fashion, interior design or automobiles, these programs revel in weapons as simply objects of desire.  From what I see on TV, I’d have to conclude that there is nothing unusual about owning military weapons. Their terrible potential for creating mayhem and tragedy not withstanding, its no wonder so many of us want our very own assault rifle. They are bad-ass!