While pundits again debate gun laws after the Isla Vista massacre, a small Laguna Beach gallery will open a show this weekend that approaches the firearm culture from a different perspective.
Specifically, it's the perspective of an artist who is barely half the age of the 22-year-old shooter and not yet old enough to drive, let alone own a gun.
Charles Gitnick, a sixth-grader at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, has made dozens of mixed-media pieces that feature replica guns mounted on backdrops and painted with acrylics. In some cases, the guns nearly disappear into the color scheme; other times, they jut brazenly out at the viewer.
The 12-year-old artist, who lives in Woodland Hills, has no political message to impart with his work, which will go on display Sunday at the Townley Gallery. He doesn't have a solution for how to stop another Isla Vista. Rather, he aims to spark discussion with his pieces — as he's done on the Venice boardwalk and in New York City and other places where he's set up a booth.
"I'm not against the 2nd Amendment, or I'm not against people hunting, because I mean if that's what they want to do, they're allowed to," Charles said by phone Tuesday. "But I'm just against people getting hurt from guns."
'Only in an art gallery'
The title of the Townley exhibit is "Gunstruction 101," but the slogan at the top of the news release — "I wish guns were only in an art gallery" — may articulate the message most clearly.
In crafting his work, Charles tapped his knowledge of art history, with pieces modeled after the styles of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock and others. "Blaster in Beautiful Blues," a Pollock homage, slathers a gun in dark, dripped colors, with the pattern continuing from the gun onto the backdrop to create a two-dimensional effect at a distance. "Warhol Weapons" consists of three stacked primary-color squares, meant to evoke baby blocks, with a pistol mounted on each one.
Charles' first gun-themed work, which he made at age 9, addressed reports of gun violence in the news. In this case, the artist worked the media into his craft: He wrapped a replica gun with newspaper clippings, then mounted it on a similarly coated backdrop.
By now, Charles estimates that he's sold more than 50 of his works. On family trips to New York and Miami, he's braved the cold and blistering heat to man his table at outdoor shows, often striking up conversations with adults who pass by to browse his work.
It was at an indoor exhibit — Artexpo New York, which brings together hundreds of artists every year in Manhattan — that Shane Townley, the owner of Townley Gallery, encountered him in mid-April. Townley had already read an article about Charles showing his work in Miami, and when he attended the New York expo, he remembered the young artist and invited him to put on a gallery show.
Charles' work impressed Townley with its Pop Art appeal, but the timeliness of its theme — especially coming from a 12-year-old artist — struck him most.
"It could be what every kid in school is in fear of, that someone's going to come with a gun to school," Townley said. "So it has a lot to do with children and guns."
Growing up with his parents and older brother, Charles had no aversion to guns. He played with them — the Nerf variety, at least — like many kids do. Also like many his age, Charles showed an interest in visual art, but he approached it as more than a hobby.
Early in elementary school, he began setting up shows in his family's living room, posting advertisements around the house and even handing out tickets. He began taking art classes but dropped out because he felt they didn't afford enough freedom. Finally, when he was 9, his father, Neil, helped him set up a table of his work for the first time by the beach in Venice.
The table featured an assortment of work, from nature paintings to gun-themed pieces, but it quickly became evident which ones caught the attention of passersby.
"Right away, you could just tell the young people were coming up and oohing and aahing over these gun pieces, because they had a real slick look," Neil said. "And the kids were calling it 'dope' and 'kite' and all these new adjectives. And they started selling. I couldn't believe that very first day he took them out.
"I watched a super well-educated, successful, middle-aged attorney pull his wallet out and hand Charles a $100 bill. I could have fallen over."
As a young professional, Charles has encountered the tough side of the art world as well. According to his father, people at both ends of the political spectrum have attacked him via email, accusing him of being either too pro-gun or too anti-gun.
Charles actually put his project on hold after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., which left 28 people dead and made the artist ponder if his work would be perceived as glamorizing guns.
After more than two weeks, though, Charles resumed the series. And if the Townley show — his first gallery exhibit — draws a few emotional reactions, well, that's part of the point.
"I don't think he's trying to tell people that we shouldn't have self-defense or we shouldn't have SEAL Team 6," Neil said. "I don't think he thinks we should have not won World War II or not defended innocent people against violent criminals. I don't think he thinks any of those things. He just feels like he's a little kid in a grown-ups' world and he doesn't have any power, and he wants people to feel a little poke from his art."
If You Go
What: "Gunstruction 101"
Where: Townley Gallery, 570 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays through Sundays from June 1 to 30; open for First Thursday Art Walk from 6 to 9 p.m. June 5
Information: (949) 715-1860 or townleygallery.com