Shotgun Reviews

Ehren Tool: One Death Is a Tragedy at Pro Arts Gallery

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Amanda N. Simons reviews Ehren Tool’s solo exhibition One Death Is a Tragedy at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, California.

Ehren Tool’s cup-throwing demonstration; Frank Ogawa Plaza, Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014; Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, California. Courtesy of the Artist and Pro Arts Gallery. Photo: Amanda N. Simons.

Ehren Tool’s cup-throwing demonstration; Frank Ogawa Plaza, Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014; Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, California. Courtesy of the Artist and Pro Arts Gallery. Photo: Amanda N. Simons.

Ehren Tool’s 2 x 2 Solos exhibition, One Death Is a Tragedy at Pro Arts Gallery, is about cups. This series of innumerable, hand-thrown ceramic cups is intricately decorated with low-relief stamps, muted colors, and image transfers that deliver liberal criticism of the American war machine, bank bailouts, and police gun violence. Simple, charged, and effective, these carefully handcrafted pieces hold their own as aesthetically pleasing objects of anti-propaganda. However, each Saturday during the exhibition, the artist offers an additional layer to the work—himself as an interactive interface for demonstration and conversation, and ultimately, as a means to unexpectedly take home a piece of art without the burden of monetary exchange.

During his last public appearance, without signage or advertizing, Tool was seated at a manual potter’s wheel in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, making more cups. Despite the afternoon heat, he sat in the shadow of a small canopy tent in a long-sleeve shirt, jeans, and heavy work boots. Layers of quickly drying gray mud coated, cracked, and flaked from his skin and clothes as he kicked the wheel, pushing and pulling clay forms in an enthralling rhythm. Cup after cup covered the surfaces around him. Tool’s intermittent audience consisted mostly of passersby: a mother with two small children, an Oakland police officer on a bike, a man on his way to the bank, a man collecting cans. Some asked questions, and others just watched as Tool made polite conversation, and when prompted, also shared his resolute but genuine viewpoints on the personal costs of military service. At the end of the conversation, Tool invited the stranger to go into the gallery and choose a cup from the exhibition to take home: a simple gesture, and an invitation that prompts a new perspective. The question of ownership prompts the viewer to reevaluate the worth of the objects, consider their use value, and also to honor just one out of the overwhelming number of cups displayed.


At first glance, these unsolicited, uncontextualized public demonstrations appear to be bait—a means for the artist to deliver a conversation that the work itself may fail to communicate—but quite the opposite is true. As Tool publicly forms the clay, the cups are a result of the time spent with each viewer, and the free gift is the viewer’s record of that interaction. No matter the subject matter of the conversation or the content of the work’s surface; the hundreds of free cups that will leave the gallery during the month of October are records of effective communication delivered personally, one-by-one.

One Death Is a Tragedy is on view at Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, California, through October 31, 2014.

Amanda N. Simons is an artist, writer, and educator who lives in Oakland. She received an MFA in Studio Art and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts, and is the Exhibition Coordinator for San Francisco’s Queer Cultural Center.

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