HOWL! HAPPENING: AN ARTURO VEGA PROJECT
DECEMBER 11, 2015 – JANUARY 10, 2016
One might expect an exhibit about fear, gun culture, and violence by an artist who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School to be a meditation on trauma and mourning. Instead, Tim Clifford’s ongoing series “Threat Assessment” is stark and analytical, more interested in what he calls the “visual artifacts of our culture” than in eulogies. These artifacts—imagery from 20th-century carnival shooting galleries and sniper targets—emerge from the same culture that produces perpetrators of mass violence, its victims, and the media and society that respond to it.
In The Ideal Classroom (2014), a near wall-sized array of ducks, stars, and targets sourced from a 1930s H. C. Evans & Co. catalogue, the black-and-white graphics are nostalgic and familiar. Depending on your age, you might have fond memories of shooting pellet guns or water pistols at similar targets in carnival shooting galleries, but in the 1930s, .22-gauge rifles were more common. The experience of standing in front of carnival targets the way one would have as a child is modulated by an awareness of recent tragedies from Sandy Hook to Santa Barbara. The memory of one’s childhood self is unsettlingly recast into the contemporary context as both a potential shooter and potential victim.
Like other works in the series, the title of The Ideal Classroom references the media coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting. Clifford has remarked on the eerie experience of watching the media sculpt his childhood town of Newtown, Connecticut into a “bucolic suburb” while he knew it to be, like any other place, home to its share of crime and violence. Here, the media’s concept of the “ideal classroom” is turned back on itself, transformed into a space where early experiences with shooting games induct children into American gun culture. The title might also suggest that children are at the other end of the rifle: the row of vulnerable ducks.
What Clifford calls his “intimate fascination” with gun violence could be hastily misinterpreted as morbid, but his works show a sincere and unflinching curiosity about the complex culture surrounding it, a culture in which we all play a part. Moments after the Newtown shooting, the town became a stand-in for every local community in America. “These children are our children,” declared Obama in somber response to the killing. It was a warm gesture of solidarity toward a community in crisis, but it also rendered fears of local shootings more palpable; if it could happen in Newtown, it could happen anywhere.
Parents from Newtown, along with Obama and others, attempted to direct the fear and outrage towards advocacy for stronger gun control. At the same time, other political camps argued that the best way for citizens to protect themselves was to purchase more guns. Standing in front of Tragedy is Not Enough (2015), a dizzying 12-x-24-foot wall of silhouetted birds, rabbits, parachutists, hearts, and other targets, the reductive logic of these political stances is apparent; people are encoded as shooters and targets, perpetrators and victims, and caught in a relentless cycle of fear.
Though Clifford is interested in artifacts or found imagery, his scaled reproductions are hand made. The ducks, stars, and other targets were cut from large sheets of heavy paper. The paper was then dyed in tanks of India ink before the contrastingly crisp white inlays were replaced onto the dyed background. Clifford seems stubbornly committed to working through the imagery in a tactile way.
Another work, Target Panic (2008 – 2012), is a series of ninty-eight fastidious gouache drawings of sniper targets, individually framed, then mounted in a monumental 7-x-14-foot grid. The title references the technical affliction suffered by competitive archers who feel a sudden reflex to shoot too early or an inability to shoot at all. The work has an autonomic effect on the viewer too; innumerable vectors and bullseyes compete for attention, drawing the eye in an impossible number of directions at once. One can only imagine that as Clifford meticulously worked on the series, he felt something akin to the physical delirium felt by the viewer.
The phenomenon of target panic, says Clifford, “severs the link between hand, mind and eye—a situation not unlike the artist or image maker in our world of information overload.” Within the context of mass violence, the implication is that these targets may also be people, and Tim Clifford renders each with humane detail and attention. His dedication to the repetitious task of making each target by hand can be interpreted as a protest against the overwhelming temptation to process these tragedies in the crude formulas of mass media. Clifford’s Newtown may not have been ideal, but it is difficult to imagine that the horror of the Sandy Hook shooting in all its vivid particularity would be any less tragic there. His work uncovers some of the cultural misconceptions about American gun culture, a necessary first step in understanding it at all.