It's probably true that art with a social or political message preaches mostly to the converted. But in recent years, many artists who feel passionately about issues--among them war, racism, neighborhood gentrification, poverty, sexism, political chicanery and nuclear power--have gone out of their way to make sure their messages reach a broad public.
The traditional way for an artist to speak to the multitudes is through print media such as woodcuts and etchings, which are easy and relatively cheap to reproduce in bulk. But these days, copy machines, photoetching and offset printing offer even speedier and cheaper solutions.
Some street-wise artists have imitated tactics of the commercial world by plastering posters in urban places, using billboards and electronic signs, or simply handing out their works to pedestrians. Others perfunctorily bind their work into humble "artists' books." Conversely, a sizable group of socially motivated artists produce work that is sold in pricey limited editions and shown only in the rarefied atmosphere of art museums and galleries.
"Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art," at the Newport Harbor Art Museum through Sept. 23, is an effort to deal with a broad cross-section of such work. The more than 100 artists and artist groups represented in this show (which was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York) include such well-known figures as Romare Bearden, Jonathan Borofsky, Louise Bourgeois, Chris Burden, Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, Jenny Holzer, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, Nancy Spero and Andy Warhol.
It is somewhat unnatural to see such a compendium of outrage and lamentation, accusation and bitter irony so tidily arranged under didactic categories ("War/Revolution," "Governments/Leaders") on the museum walls. But the vast majority of the individual works are extremely effective devices for attracting viewers' attention and presenting them with vivid images and texts that drive home powerful themes.
As befits an age bombarded with imagery, the printed works co-opt strategies from an array of sources, including advertising (Haacke's "Tiffany Cares"), sign painting (Ilona Granet's "Curb Your Animal Instinct"), folk art (Eric Avery's "History"), magazine layout (Alfredo Jaar's images from the project "Rushes"), official documents (Qris Yamashita's "Redress/Reparations Now!/Little Tokyo") and even minimalist art (Frank Stella's "Attica Defense Fund").
It goes without saying that all the work on view can be described with the L-word. There is no art here that supports the Moral Majority, no special pleading for handgun owners, flag wavers or fat cats. Yet some works--such as Les Levine's "Blast God," a huge billboard showing the aftermath of a riot in Northern Ireland--override the specifics of a controversy to ask big questions about life and death.
"Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art," prints, posters and books by more than 100 artists and collaborative groups.
July 15 through Sept. 23. Galleries are open 10 a.m. to 5 pm. daily, closed Mondays.
Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach.
Take Jamboree Road to Santa Barbara Drive, just north of the Coast Highway. San Clemente runs off Santa Barbara.
$3 for adults; $2 for students, seniors and military with current I.D.; $1 for children 6 to 17. Tuesdays are free for everyone, courtesy of Beacon Bay Enterprises Inc.
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