The newest exhibition at the School of Art and Design’s Slusser Gallery, “The Graphic Imperative,” features 50 years of social, political and environmental posters. On display until Jan. 25, it’s sure to catch the attention of even the most undemonstrative members of “Generation Apathy.”
One hundred and twenty-one political posters from around the world line the walls of Slusser Gallery, each delivering themes of human rights, civil rights, sexism, classism or war protest. Each poster is a mixture of rebellion and frustration along with hope and courage.
Upon entering the gallery, bold graphics that once encouraged protest and incited change don’t simply wash over you, giving you time to contemplate and chew on the artists’ messages. Instead, they pull you in quickly and then throw a firm left hook to your very core.
While some of the work does this with photography, others use irony, juxtaposition of words and pictures and even comedy. Yet what all the posters have in common is their ability to make history collide with the present, reviving the reality of past social struggles while illuminating the reality of the present.
Many of the most effective posters in “Imperative” exploit the viewer’s familiarity with graphic advertising to promote their own agendas. A poster titled “iRaq” features the same black silhouette of the iPod advertisements. But this image, stark on a bright yellow background, isn’t that of a vibrant street dancer or Bono, but a prisoner at Abu Ghraib. The text says, “10,000 Iraqis dead. 773 U.S. soldiers dead.”
This “subvertising” is also used in a work exposing health and environmental problems raised by the use of pesticides. “Sun Mad II” borrows the graphic language of the Sun-Maid Raisin box, yet twists the commonality of the image by turning the tanned maiden into a skeleton hovering over a bushel of green grapes.
Unlike the posters that take typical, uncontroversial graphic advertisements and contort them to make a strong message about mortality and health, others like “Penis Cop” raise awareness through humor, not fear.
“Believe it!! Everyday someone successfully uses a condom under the influence of alcohol,” the poster exclaims. It continues, “Did you know? 4 out of 4 persons prefer condoms to herpes?” and gives them the “warning” that objects in condoms “may appear larger than they actually are.” “Sandpaper” is among the products the poster advises not to use with condoms.
“These posters make us reconstruct our cultural references,” said Rebecca Zurier, an associate professor in the history of art department. “So much of our visual environment is shaped by big ad firms. This is a chance to see the picture in a new way.”
“The posters and ads that we are used to seeing rarely give you a ‘what’s wrong here’ picture,” she said. Not in “Imperative.”
Especially during election time, we’re constantly bombarded by images, graphics and ads.
“Political and social ads are in the style of high production ads,” Zurier said. “They don’t want you to feel bad or ugly. They want you to feel good about what’s in the picture.”
“Imperative” throws that all away. The posters make you feel bad, they make you feel ugly and they make you feel like there is a need for change. And while standing in the face of all of the problems raised by “Imperative” may seem daunting, there is one poster that gives a solution.
“Don’t Vote,” it announces against a canvas of red, white and blue with a man in a gag, “and you won’t be heard,” finishes the message in smaller scroll.
“[The exhibit] challenges the notion that graphic design is only a commercial activity,” said Elizabeth Resnick, an associate professor of graphic design at the
Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who led a discussion at the gallery before opening night.
As viewers moved from poster to poster, a silence spread over the room. Seeds were being planted, a consciousness being raised. Design was not just a commercial commodity, posters were not just selling socks: They were selling ideas.
Meg Young, an LSA freshman and member of student activist group SOLE, tried to pinpoint the experience. After viewing the Vietnam anti-war poster that pairs a photograph of slaughtered Viet Cong with the text “Q. And babies? A. And babies,” she said she was paralyzed by her experience. The poster conveyed what is often overlooked in wartime: Body count has a face, and sometimes that means the face of a child.
“What ‘The Imperative’ is trying to do is give people an idea that they are empowered,” Young said. “It lets them know that something is going on and something needs to be done and that they are being called on to do it.”
Young understands the power of the image.
“The drive for name brands and name recognition shows the power behind visual cues.”
If these visual cues of the commercial world are replaced by the images of reality, there’s an opportunity for change. If “Abu Ghraib” replaces “iPod,” and “Sun Mad” replaces “Sun-Maid,” there is a chance that we can become less commercialized and more politicized.