What does it take to open your mind, shock you into action or at least make you sympathize with a cause? Can words and pictures on a poster do the job? Well, the artists who anonymously produce this form of cheap, mass-produced, throwaway art have never stopped believing in the good work they do.
An exhibit of 102 human rights posters at Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery offers an excellent introduction to the diverse ways in which often highly unpopular political issues have been presented to broad audiences around the globe during the past couple of decades--as well as to the issues themselves.
The timing of the exhibit is dead on: In today's climate of close-minded conservatism and increasing hate crimes, human rights remain on the critical list.
A sheaf of notes and an essay by Carol A. Wells, executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics and co-curator of the show (with galley director Mayde Herberg) adds vital perspective and information--particularly for younger viewers who may draw a blank at such names as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Marian Anderson, Joseph McCarthy and James Bakke. The posters in the show are clustered, regardless of date, according to familiar themes: apartheid in South Africa; U.S.-aided right-wing government attacks on Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans; the internment of American Japanese during World War II; anti-Communist witch hunts in the United States during the 1950s; anti-Semitism; capital punishment; land rights for American Indians; the civil rights movement; women's issues; AIDS; poverty.
Some of the posters make their appeal based on the oppression of victims, other messages sharply accuse the viewer of indifference and still others celebrate heroic leaders. Cliched but immediately recognizable imagery--frequently of mothers and children, people raising clenched fists or proud-looking women with flowing hair--dominates many posters; others make use of sophisticated graphics and arty layouts. While the audience for one poster may be barely literate, another is assumed to be capable of following a lengthy text with complex arguments.
The posters were produced for reasons that actually have more in common with the motivations of commercial advertising than with the traditional, contemplative sphere of art. To say which posters represent the most effective combinations of text and imagery, you would have to know for what audiences they were intended.
As a white, female, educated, middle-class American, I gravitated to the posters that most closely duplicate the approach of Madison Avenue--the language of manipulation with which I'm most familiar, with its penchant for impressive statistics, snappy prose and riveting, one-shot images. Among them are:
* Keith Haring's AIDS poster, "Ignorance Equals Fear," with its trio of "see no/hear no/speak no evil" yellow cartoon figures and the striking pink triangle logo developed by Act Up.
* Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's self-portrait with a branch tattooed over her missing breast, lost to cancer ("I am no longer afraid of mirrors").
* The Guerrilla Girls' "Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?" (a photograph of a famous nude by Ingres wearing the underground women's artists group trademark guerrilla head, with statistics about the number of female artists represented at the Met, and the number of female nudes).
* The Simon Wiesenthal Center's Holocaust reminder, with its photograph of bitter mementos from the prison camps and literate text.
* "Whatever happened to . . . ," a sea of blank white silhouettes in a school portrait, recalling government-sanctioned, CIA-supported eradication of unarmed Guatemalan civilians.
* Lynn Okun's image of a map of Africa superimposed on a facet of a diamond ring: "Some dream of diamonds, others of equality. Diamonds are forever. Africa is now!"
* Susan Ocona's "Alone Invisible Homeless," a black poster with the barely discernible black image of a homeless family.
But even the most homespun or hackneyed image in this show is rooted in human rage, despair or celebration, and a powerful conviction that the world can be changed for the better. The sheer moral force of all these images make the show exceptional in our confused and callous times.
"Courageous Voices: An International Poster Exhibition on Racism, Sexism and Human Rights."
Through Oct. 4. Gallery is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday (closed Saturday and Sunday).
Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery, Building C. Campus is at the corner of Bristol Avenue and 17th Street in Santa Ana.
Take the Santa Ana Freeway to 17th Street and drive west just past Bristol (entrance is off 17th Street).
Admission is free.
Where to call