Before Gun Show even opened, Brad K. Evans was fielding phone calls from the Colorado anti-gun organization SAFE. He'd heard they were planning to demonstrate outside Pirate, the art gallery where his installation debuted on January 21.
"I think it's ironic that they're protesting something they don't know about," Evans said the night before the opening, when he was still taping the outline of a dead body on the floor and before he'd hung the wooden crosses on the wall with the black raincoats in the Harris/Klebold corner. He anticipated trouble with that particular segment of the show because "it's sensitive, it happened here and kids were involved." But protests based on knee-jerk ideas about an art installation titled Gun Show only demonstrate the importance of mounting such an exhibit in the first place.
For Gun Show, Evans painted a blood-red band, just above eye level, against hospital-white walls in Pirate's main first-floor gallery. As it runs across the walls, the band provides a background for stark white letters that spell out the names of thirteen killers. On the floor underneath their names, Evans assembled items representing their crimes. Under the name "Barton" (for Atlanta day trader/murderer Mark O. Barton), for example, sits a desk with a computer monitor and phone. Next to the McDonald's logo under the name "Huberty," 21 Happy Meal bags represent the people gunned down by James Huberty at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California, in 1984. A postal shirt and mailbag evoke the workplace massacre committed by Pat Sherrill in 1986 (the Edmond, Oklahoma, post-office worker shot and killed fourteen people, then himself).
"It was the original workplace massacre," Evans said. "Little did he know he would invent such a thing." Since Sherrill's rampage, at least eighty other people have been killed in similar incidents; the latest such killings occurred in November when a Xerox employee in Hawaii killed seven co-workers.
Evans's intent wasn't to argue any one side of the gun debate but "to reflect what's going on in society today. I imagined that this would be like a newspaper, presented in an unbiased way. I've had calls from both SAFE and the NRA asking if I was pro-gun, but I don't really have an opinion. It's more about the results." Evans is a former newspaper designer who now works for a visual design company; that background shows up not only in his reportorial approach, but in his potent use of graphic symbols, as well: the McDonald's logo, a Star of David, a Nazi flag. And those images are as familiar as the ones visitors will see when they first walk into the show and encounter a large mirror. The accompanying text reads "People Kill People" -- but it's unlikely that the words will be misread as championing any NRA slogans.
That should calm down the folks at SAFE. There's little comfort, however, in a discovery Evans made while collecting artifacts for the installation. He's traditionally raided dumpsters and secondhand stores for objects to incorporate into his work, and when he went searching through thrift stores for black trench coats, he found them empty of the Columbine killers' chosen attire. "I don't know if Harris and Klebold popularized them or what -- you'd think there would be lots of black trench coats, but there weren't," Evans said.
The sick idea that there's been a run on black trench coats just reinforces what Evans discovered in the course of putting together the show. "It's amazing what these people have done. There's a lot of wacked-out people who end up with weapons."