Artists Take Action
Some of these posters can be downloaded from the alliance's website or purchased as stand-alone works.
Booklyn Artists Alliance, booklyn.org, Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, justseeds.org
What happens when an explosion of creativity meets a passion for politics on the front lines and in the streets? Pretty much what you find at Wesleyan University's Davison Art Center, in a small but splendid exhibit of contemporary protest posters called Artists Take Action, on view until May 26 in Middletown. They are all a part of what cocurators Clare Rogan and Suzy Taraba call "a resurgence of protest posters today."
The left-leaning posters, created by more than 80 artists, mostly from the U.S., are taken from four portfolios published by artists' cooperatives around the country, including Booklyn Artists Alliance and Justseeds Artists' Cooperative. If you've been to any of the Occupy events, you may have seen some of these works posted in subways, or on buildings, bulletin boards or lampposts — in short, wherever "The Man" would allow them to stay for a few days until either a collector took them down, a creep defaced them, or some other urgent message was posted on top of them. Besides the Occupy Movement, the messages represented various groups including environmental, women's rights, gay marriage and Iraqi veterans organizations.
The most effective posters in the exhibit are the ones with the least number of words and the simplest design. And, perhaps through trial and error over the past two years, the Occupy posters have the simple message/simple graphics quotients down pat. Some of the ecology and women's rights posters are too busy to be absorbed by the casual passerby. Dense text and graphics might work for fashion ads or movie one-sheets but they undermine the function of a protest poster, which is to be read and absorbed on the fly. For issues worth protesting, the posters are like telegraph messages or shorthand — visual tweets, if you will. They are intended to magnetize those predisposed to hear the message and disturb or horrify those who aren't.
Good examples of effective protest posters dominate this exhibit. For example "Come Out. Share Your Story. Break The Silence" contains a striking Picasso-like painting of a woman's face to illustrate the issue of legalizing abortion. "Hear Me Roar" by Meredith Stern, with its old-school woodblock effect, places feminism in the currents of history. The antiwar message of "There is No Such Thing as a Toy Soldier" by Marshall Weber is effectively conveyed by a blurred photo of a dime store soldier. Likewise, Jesse Purcell's screenprint "War Is Trauma" grabs a viewer by the throat, with its depiction of a hand grenade whose casing is made of human brains.
The standout poster here is "Coal" by Josh MacPhee, which is probably fitting since he has literally written the book on street art — the indispensable Stencil Pirates (Soft Skull Press) — and is an expert at conveying enormous amounts of information with just a few simple visuals. During the Bush years, MacPhee, who is affiliated with Justseeds, documented the brilliant explosion of subversive street stenciling and risked arrest spray-painting the landscape with his own creations. In "Coal," MacPhee presents a stripped-down image of a giant Pez dispenser with a mountaintop as the flip-top mechanism that distributes the tasty pellets. In this case, the pitch-black pellets are coal.
The only disquieting aspect of Artists Take Action might be the sense of nostalgia it conveys (whether intended or not) for things that happened only two years ago. Where has the momentum of the Occupy movement gone? Did anything change? Maybe it's time to do what these posters suggest, and get back out in the streets.