'Cocked and Gagged,' at Susan Calza Gallery, Addresses a Horrific American Phenomenon | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'Cocked and Gagged,' at Susan Calza Gallery, Addresses a Horrific American Phenomenon


Published June 14, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

"Cocked and Gagged"  installation details - COURTESY
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  • "Cocked and Gagged" installation details

Passersby the Susan Calza Gallery, on Montpelier's Main Street, can see through the tall bay windows streams of red ribbons hanging from the ceiling. It looks festive. But "this ain't no party, this ain't no disco," as David Byrne sings in "Life During Wartime." As it happens, other lyrics in that song, released in 1979, fit the theme of the gallery's current exhibit: "Heard of a van that's loaded with weapons / Packed up and ready to go ... The sound of gunfire, off in the distance / I'm getting used to it now."

Calza's mixed-media installation, which she provocatively titled "Cocked and Gagged," addresses a horrific American phenomenon: gun violence — specifically mass killings. By official definition, the "mass" in that term means an incident in which four or more people are intentionally murdered. As of Saturday, Calza had hung 280 red ribbons. Each one represents a mass-shooting incident in 2023, not the number of people killed.

The individual deaths are recorded in a red 2023 daybook set upon a square antique table in the center of the gallery; Calza wrote by hand the victims' names, ages and locations. A yellow sticky note on the book welcomes visitors to have a look. An adjacent chair — also an antique, with cushions the color of dried blood — invites sitting and contemplating.

"Cocked and Gagged"  installation details - COURTESY
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  • "Cocked and Gagged" installation details

An old-school cassette player on the desk encourages visitors to hit the "on" button. If they do, they'll hear a double-layered recording of Calza's voice. One track is a calm recitation of the stats in the book, which after a few minutes becomes drone-like, almost hypnotic; on the second track, the voice is louder and clearly distraught. "I'm doing this so I have a sense of somehow connecting with what's happening in my country," Calza says of the installation. "We really have to do something! I'm not sure what. None of us know what to do."

Future visitors will experience the audio differently; Calza said she's planning to run the litany of deaths on a continual loop in the gallery, with more voices. "For some reason, people are reluctant to turn on the tape recorder," she observed.

The most startling visual elements of "Cocked and Gagged" — and the literal expressions of that title — are large-scale black-and-white photographs on opposite walls of the one-room gallery. In a quartet of stills from an earlier, unrelated video by Calza, she's aiming a pistol at the viewer. The other image is a self-portrait by artist Dominique Gustin; her eyes are closed and her long hair is wrapped tightly around her mouth. Cocked and gagged, respectively.

Calza said Gustin's photograph, titled "Inertia," was created during the pandemic and wasn't intended to address gun violence. She had seen it on Instagram and reached out to Gustin for permission to include it in this exhibit. "I found it to be a captivating image, and, like all compelling images, it reveals essential human concerns," Calza said.

"Cocked and Gagged"  installation details - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Cocked and Gagged" installation details

Indeed, the enigmatic photograph could represent any number of human responses. In the context of this exhibit, one of them might be numbness to the unending carnage of mass shootings. "For me [the image] sums up the predicament we're in," Calza said. "We don't want to look."

Nor do we want to accept the fact that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children. "How can that be?" Calza implored.

Underscoring the statistics, as well as the means of death, she added bullet shells to the installation. Five thousand of them. The brass-colored casings are poured into pretty parfait cups, piled on a cake stand under a glass dome and swept into a heap in a corner.

"Cocked and Gagged" is on view through July 23. But Calza said she's committed to recording gun deaths for a year and the exhibit will evolve with different contributions from other artists.

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