Two weeks ago, in the chapel at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, where there’s currently an exhibition of inventor William F. Mangels’ designs for amusement park rides, Brooklyn-based artist Tim Clifford stopped in front of a sign meant for a shooting gallery. It’s a pale blue piece of metal with orange lettering that warns children, priests, and various others not to try shooting. “You’ll find out why,” it reads.
“I really like this one,” said Clifford, whose work hangs from the metal rafters above Mangels’ objects. Clifford’s drawings—the only contemporary work to appear in the show, and part of his ongoing “Threat Assessment” series—are the opposite of the sign, aesthetically. They’re stark, black-and-white, smoothly finished remakes of designs that would have initially appeared nearby Mangels’ Coney Island rides in the early 20th century.
Thematically, there’s also something decidedly un-amusing about these works. A broad-shouldered cowboy set against a black background appears with two circular bullet holes, implying something much more sinister lurking beneath the work’s surface.
“We look at shooting galleries because they have a nostalgic aura,” said Clifford, standing under a large yellow scene for a balloon game with two rifles under it. “There’s a direct line from the companies that made these shooting galleries to the companies that made arcade games, starting in the 1950s, when there were mechanical arcade games, on up through video games today. Here, they were shooting with real .22 rifles, not video game consoles.”
Coincidentally, Clifford started making his “Threat Assessment” drawings, which are based on those in a 1930s H.C. Evans & Co. catalogue, just before the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. Clifford has a personal connection to the event. “That was actually my elementary school, the school I went to growing up, so I had this intimate fascination with the events,” said Clifford. “The title ‘Threat Assessment’ comes from the writing and debates around the Sandy Hook school shooting.”
The four drawings were made specially for the exhibition, titled “William F. Mangels: Amusing the Masses on Coney Island and Beyond.” Curated by the cemetery’s historian, Jeff Richman, the exhibition is on view through October 26.
After donating to the exhibition’s Kickstarter (which exceeded its $17,500 goal by over $1,000), Clifford decided that simply funding the show was not enough. “I wrote to help out because I wanted to have some involvement in the show for my own selfish reasons,” Clifford said, jokingly. “After seeing my work, [Richman] asked me to do something.”
Making the “Threat Assessment” drawings has been a welcome reprieve for Clifford, who spent eleven years co-authoring a three-volume Robert Motherwell catalogue raisonné that was published by Yale University Press in 2012. “I gained a lot of appreciation for someone like Motherwell, whose career had such a longevity and passion,” said Clifford, noting that Motherwell is a particularly interesting historical character, for him, because he “wasn’t fooled by any aesthetic dogma.”
Motherwell has not had any influence on Clifford’s art, though. “The artists I love are the artists I’m stealing from, so he wasn’t necessarily someone I was stealing from,” Clifford said. (He claims to steal from Mike Kelley, Robert Smithson, and the early work of Robert Gober.)
In the coming months, Clifford will continue making drawings for his “Threat Assessment” series, and they’re going to be bigger than ever. In his Sunset Park studio is a drawing called The Ideal Classroom, a shooting gallery filled with ducks, birds, and abstract geometric designs whose title alludes to press coverage from the Newtown shooting. It currently takes up a large part of one wall. Clifford is currently working on a 20-by-20-foot version similar to it. As Clifford showed the unfinished work, he gently patted down a few unfinished surfaces, making sure that it looked as if it were untouched by a human hand.
Working on projects like “Threat Assessment” is what Clifford plans on doing for the time being. He’s enthusiastic about being able to make art again, too, after years of research for the Motherwell catalogue raisonné. “If you’d asked by two years ago if I’d being doing this work, I’d have said you were crazy,” said Clifford. “Now it’s all I can think about.”