Through his art, Jorge Miguel Benitez hopes to move the conversation about guns in America away from activist groups and into the minds of average Americans. 

Under the Gun

Artspace might be the only place in the world where Million Mom March organizer Rosie O'Donnell and NRA President Charleton Heston could feel downright chummy. That's because through the end of the month, the gallery is displaying lots of guns and ammo in "Killing America: The Legacy of the Second Amendment," an exhibition by local Richmond painter Jorge Miguel Benitez.

Whether you find the show pro- or anti-gun is entirely up to you.

Picture big guns — 5-feet by 5-feet in hot yellows, reds and menacing black. In fact, of the nine pieces that compose the show, all but two feature shiny, seductive revolvers, bullets, assault rifles and .45s juxtaposed with everything from a little kid's head to a full moon.

Pretty questionable product from a skinny, 5-foot-10-inch former Marine who doesn't actually own a gun himself. Not to mention the fact that — generally speaking — Benitez hates violence.

Don't worry. It's not the product of a painter with a hush-hush Freudian problem. Instead, it's a collection of work, begun in 1997 in response to the largest act of terrorism in the United States: the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma. Benitez hopes to move the conversation about guns in America out of government and activist groups and into the minds and souls of the average American.

The 44-year-old painter, sums it up this way: "It's introspection." he says. "This show forces each individual to go inward. If someone chooses to own a gun or target shoot or hunt, they should ask themselves, 'Will I always use this responsibly, or will this possibly seduce me to kill someone?'"

A gun seducing you? It could happen, especially with Benitez drawing you into the quicksand. Here's one panel title: "How Safe Do You Feel?" Is there a good answer to that question when you're in an empty, silent gallery staring at a sexy revolver? Suddenly it seems reasonable to pack a piece. Downright justified.

The huge in-your-face images lure you from panel to panel. Take the opening piece, "Genesis," which features a huge pimply face teen-ager (hey, isn't that Timothy McVeigh?) against the words of the Second Amendment. Or near the end, "Graduation," with a simple Norman Rockwell-type baseball and glove lying next to — naturally — a .45-caliber.

Then there are the pieces closer to Benitez's personal experiences as a Cuban immigrant during the Cold War. Although he was only 4 years old when the Cuban Revolution took hold, Benitez can barely describe his sense of loss over events that happened 40 years ago. He decided to paint the experience in "The History of Childhood in the 20th Century," which features a Dick-and-Jane little boy with a revolver to his head.

"That's from my Cuban passport," Benitez says flatly. "I did that to talk about the fact that children in this century have really lived under the gun. I lost my childhood. I didn't laugh for like three or four years after the revolution started. I was horrified. I couldn't sleep at night. I lived in absolute terror of a knock at the door. The revolution robbed me of my childhood."

It's actually in his personal history as a Cuban that Benitez sees the complete circle of violence in America. Pointing to "Russian Legacy," a gorgeous orange-and-red image of an enormous AK-47, he makes a subtle case for the similarities between the hate rhetoric of both the far right and the far left. Both use force to ram their ideas down others' throats.

"The AK-47 is a messy gun," Benitez says. "It was developed by the Soviet Union. And it's the weapon of choice in today's Cuba. It's also the weapon of choice for today's Neo-Nazis. It's designed, simply, to kill large numbers of people very quickly. And very sloppily." That's the kind of information that only a cop or an ex-Marine or a gun fanatic would know — how well or poorly a weapon can spray your guts. More important still is being in a conscious and comfortable relationship with weapons. Benitez, who is already planning a new series about human rights, is at peace with being unarmed.

"I'm not psychologically prepared to take another life," he says. "That's one thing I learned in the Marine Corps. I'm not John Wayne. I can't take on the world by myself. I'm pretty useless without the rest of a team. It's really the great irony of having served in the Marines. It trained me to kill, and it trained me to respect life and nurture life."

And there — in a mortar shell — you have the gun debate.


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