Certain highly polarizing topics in the United States can spark heated debate in an instant: abortion, illegal immigration, and war immediately come to mind. One debate that literally goes back to the founding of the nation – where uttering just a single syllable word can divide friends, family and an entire country alike, however, is – guns. Or perhaps one should add one more word, just two syllables to the singular of that noun to really get the debate going: control – gun control. 

Tom Hubbard’s artistic response to the polarized world that we now inhabit as it relates to the firearm is the sizable installation Recoil. With a nod to the ubiquitous understanding of the gun form, Hubbard has fashioned over 40 porcelain handguns in a monochromatic spectrum of black to white. The barrel of each porcelain gun is stamped with data, quotes and facts related to guns, attempting not to favor one camp over the other in the gun control debate. 

Recoil aims to be neutral, but in effect that is impossible. The material is almost always divisive: statistics on background checks, facts on mass shootings, quotes from passionate gun owners, and items related to domestic violence, mental illness, racial profiling and a slew of broader topics that the gun debate encompasses. In short, matters that those on either side of the debate will either nod and agree with or shake their head at in disgust. 

The beauty of Recoil is in the understanding of the act of to which it refers. Recoil or kickback is the forceful backward momentum of a gun when it is discharged. According to Newton’s third law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), the recoil caused by a gun when fired, therefore perfectly balances the forward movement. Furthermore, the act of recoiling also can mean the act of moving back from something. The ceramic guns in Recoil are a device to present both sides of an argument, to ask people to reevaluate previously held beliefs and consider another viewpoint. 

Recoil is installed in a linear manner, which allows viewers to easily read the inscriptions from a short distance. From afar the piece draws attention to the massive amount of guns owned in this country, over 300 million – nearly one for every man, woman and child in the United States. It also conjures our shared understanding of the gun’s existence as a pure form, a structure so universally understood that it does not require an object. Everyone has mimicked the act of shooting a gun by simply extending an index finger while folding back their remaining digits and using their thumb as a trigger. Hubbard’s guns in Recoil are not replicas of any real-world model, but simply are read as firearms by their collectively understood form. 

Recoil is a long time in the making, not just in the literal labor to fashion it – a huge undertaking – but also through the social and historical place from which it draws context. While one could argue the gun control debate from which Recoil derives its framework goes back to the initiation of the Second Amendment, this detailed artwork leans more toward recent events. In fact, it was impossible for Hubbard to address all the national episodes in the gun control debate that occurred while he was creating Recoil – there were simply too many to incorporate into the artwork. After taking on such a challenging and exhaustive subject, one can only wonder what Hubbard will address next.

Paula Katz
Executive Director
Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art
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