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Shannon Cannings: Target Audience

On view June 23 - September 14, 2022

"As both an artist and a consumer, I am drawn to the bright colors, slick surfaces, and thrilling packaging of the toy guns that make up my subject matter. I have as much connection to their shiny translucent plastic as I do to the childhood nostalgia that they evoke. But I must ask myself—and the viewers my paintings confront—if these hyper-realistic depictions of toy guns also glorify and aestheticize violence. What lessons are learned from gun play? Do childhood toy gun games convince us to tolerate violent language and behavior as adults, or is it just harmless fun? Sometimes I give my paintings titles like “Trigger Happy”, “Friendly Fire”, and “Gunplay,” to underscore the ambiguity inherent in the interplay between children’s games, acts of violence, and my painterly celebration of color and glossy surfaces.


Recent events have shown us that it is impossible to ignore the current media battle between gun culture and gun control, a battle exacerbated by popular culture and the news cycle. I was halfway through a painting depicting two brothers posing with toy guns at the moment of the Sandy Hook school shooting. My own children were a mile away at school. After school, I hugged my first grader tightly, acknowledging the fact that parents of an entire classroom of first graders would not be able to hug their children that night. I wasn’t able to continue work on the painting for several weeks, and the experience of going back to it after Sandy Hook brought home the fact that I am not completely comfortable with my subject matter. I felt guilty planning birthday parties while other parents planned funerals. And here we are again. The Uvalde shooting occurred as I was halfway through painting “Safe and Secure.” In this painting, the federally required wording in firearm owner’s manuals about gun storage looms behind a clear vintage water gun, either menacingly or protectively, depending on the perspective of the viewer. As I painted it, the words became more relevant with every brushstroke. How can guns make some of us feel more safe and secure, while others need the absence of firearms to sleep well?


Opinions run the gamut about gun rights and control. I hope to engage viewers to question with me and to explore their own relationships with guns and gun culture and how they relate to play. The language of guns, freedom, fear, and protection (often used to scare and steer people into political viewpoints) has become particularly important to me and relevant to my work because I live in a border state and teach at a university that has complied with new Campus Carry laws. At one of my recent exhibitions, the gallerist hired an armed guard as a precaution, due to an online threat.


It was never my intention to make a career out of painting guns. I moved to West Texas in the summer of 2000 from Syracuse, New York. The strange heat and landscape drained of color drove me into the studio for relief. I painted a plastic oasis of colorful beach balls, floating in the turquoise water in blow up pools. Squirt guns shared the same seasonal aisle of the big box stores where I bought new yard toys to paint. They had the same nostalgia, color, and translucence, but had an unsettling quality for me. And as I explored them, I noticed the great range of reactions people have to them. With each exhibition, and news story of yet another shooting (and subsequent talking head debate), I come away with more questions, or a different angle on this complicated problem. And those questions lead to the next group of paintings, and the next. I don’t know how to end gun violence in the US, but I do want my work to act as a catalyst for the discussion."


-Shannon Cannings


Image: Shannon Cannings, Near Miss, 2022

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