There’s a long history of guns in contemporary art, from Chris Burden’s Shoot to Sophie Calle’s ballistic treatment of her lover’s letter in Take Care of Yourself to a myriad points in between. And the connection between guns and painting is no less direct. Nikki de Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings and William Burrough’s Shotgun Paintings both used big bad guns to induce painterly marks, though they regarded their guns differently. Burroughs was perhaps more interested in the kinetic response of paint than in his audience’s visceral reaction to the blast. de Saint Phalle was at least equally interested in the violence implicit in her rifle.
All this, of course, was the last thing on Ryan Johnson‘s mind as he stood at the shooting range, along with fellow American University MFA Sam Scharf, trying to fix a brand new Kel-Tec that was stovepiping. Stovepiping, apparently, happens when a semi-automatic pistol fails to eject its spent bullet casings, clogging its mechanism and rendering the gun, well, something less than semi-automatic. Ryan had purchased it with this very moment in mind, so the pesky malfunction was nothing short of irritating. Sure, he already owned a couple of Glocks, but the longer range of the Kel-Tec would provide better accuracy at greater distances. And since the plan was to shoot at unconventional targets outdoors, an adequate shooting distance was a must. Or at least this is how Ryan had rationalized it — a Kel-Tec can be pricey, sure, but not in the name of safety. And yes, art.
So here they were, Ryan and Sam, about an hour’s drive from D.C. at Gilbert’s Indoor Range in Rockville, Maryland. Their visit to Gilbert’s was mainly for Sam’s benefit — he would watch safety training videos and do target practice until he felt comfortable with a semi-automatic pistol in his hand. Just enough to get him up to speed. You see, they were getting ready to take a few paintings into the woods deep in Virginia country. And the plan was to put a couple of bullets into them.
This, then, is the context for Kill or be Killed, the project that brought Sam and Ryan to Gilbert’s Indoor Range. Just a week prior they’d completed eight paintings, painstaking reproductions of abstract expressionist masterpieces scaled to the size of shooting targets. They would later string them up and shoot them, marking them with the exploding contents of golden spray paint cans affixed to the works. Conceptually, Kill or be Killed is somewhere between Burroughs and de Saint Phalle — partly interested in the emotionally charged dramatics of gunplay, partly interested in the element of chance and in the kinetic mark-making that results from blowing shit up.
The project is also the anxious and physical manifestation of an inexorable challenge: how to actively engage with an art historical past that is wrought with weighty significance while at the same time forging your own way forward. In this sense the bullet holes in Kill or be Killed are like a cathartic last resort to overcome the specter of the unattainable (a specter that appears to come alive in the video below). And the golden sheen from the exploding paint cans — the only original marks made by the artists — can exist only as a result of that fatal gesture, reverential in its gloss even as the representation of a masterpiece gets buried beneath.
A portion of Kill or be Killed is currently on view in the show Academy at Conner Contemporary. The whole series will be on display in the Artist Platform at the (e)merge art fair this fall.Samuel Dylan Scharf is originally from Orlando, FL and obtained his BA at Rollins College in 2005. He currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. after recently graduating with his MFA from American University in 2012. Samuel is a project based artist, his medium follows his idea. The main navigation for his ideas stem from a concern of awareness for both the viewer as well as a reaction to his own environment.Ryan Carr Johnson is an artist working in the D.C. area. He received his BFA from the Corcoran in 2006 and is an MFA candidate (2013) at American University.