In China, political posters helped spur the Cultural Revolution. In the United States, posters of bikini-clad blondes stir teen-age hormones. Art historian Carol Wells uses posters, graphic documents of social history, to stimulate debate.
Wells began collecting posters in 1981 when, with the help of a grant from UCLA, she traveled to Nicaragua to document that country's public art: murals, billboards and posters promoting literacy campaigns and other social programs. She's been a poster hound ever since.
"I had seen Nicaraguan posters before the first trip, and I really didn't care for them; they weren't beautiful and their messages were too obvious," Wells said. "Two years later, I could have kicked myself. In spite of my training as an art historian, I missed the historical value and saw only the aesthetics. I was looking for something to decorate my house.
"Art is a living, vital part of people's lives there. Nicaraguans argue about whether a poster is good or bad and discuss the pros and cons of the poster's message," Wells said. "It was so different from my experience--you have to go out of your way, to museums and galleries, to find art here."
Wells scours book and poster shops all over the country and has contacts around the world who send her posters that might otherwise end up tossed away as garbage.
"Too often, valuable posters from marginal struggles get thrown away. Either they announce a single event and are immediately torn down, or people stick them up with tape and thumbtacks, and they eventually fall apart," Wells said. "When I've asked shop clerks if they have any political posters, they show me the trash can and say, "help yourself."
Wells literally rummages through the trash heaps of history and displays the artifacts she finds in gallery exhibits. She's a lecturer at California State University, Fullerton, and would eventually like to open a poster-lending library. Her current show at California State University, Northridge includes posters-- from Central and South America, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and the United States--that deal specifically with women's issues.
One of the most controversial pieces portrays a woman who proudly displays a tattoo placed over her mastectomy scar. Once, at an exhibit at Loyola Law School, a male student ripped that particular poster off the wall.
"At first he said he found the naked breast offensive," Wells said. "Then he told someone else that he 'got peeved' because he blushed when he saw it. Later, he said that the whole thing was an accident."
Wells welcomes controversy. "We internalize so many images--in ads, on TV, in movies--without stopping to thing about them. I think there's a real danger in that. These posters may be hard for some to accept, but they do force people to think."
Women Defining Power is on display through March 4 at CSUN's South Gallery, Fine Arts Building, 18111 Nordoff St., Northridge. Gallery hours: Monday, noon to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. For more information call (818) 885-2226.