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SANTA MONICA : Exhibit Paints Posters as Powerful, Historic, Artistic


For Carol A. Wells, posters are not an inexpensive substitute for real art. They are art. And they're historically significant.

"We're the only organization in the country exposing people to what posters are all about," says Wells, founder and executive director of the 7-year-old Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Currently, a collection of 57 posters--the images span a 50,000-person Vietnam War protest, the 1992 Rodney King beating and the recent furor over Proposition 187--is on display at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica.

Although originally conceived as an in-house display for the center's staff, the installation is open to the public.

"We want to educate new generations," said Wells, who presides over the center's 17,000-piece archive, which is stored in a rent-free West Hollywood office building.

Through July 31, the nonprofit organization is also represented at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research in South-Central Los Angeles with "Viva La Huelga" ("The Strike Lives"), a poster exhibition documenting the organizing efforts of American migrant workers.

For the past five years, Wells' work has been supported by grants from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. The money has allowed her to regularly take her diverse collection on the road: The center's resume includes 40 exhibits at more than 80 venues.

A children's rights exhibition, "Throwing Away the Future: The War Against Children" was seen at the Southern California Library and at Cal State Los Angeles. "Five Hundred Years Since Columbus" went to Cal State Northridge, New York, Chicago, Arkansas, Sacramento and Thousand Oaks.

In 1993-94, the center hosted a poster-making workshop with arts and humanities teachers at three local high schools. "The kids picked the topics they wanted to deal with," Wells says dryly. "Drugs and sex. Gangs and sex. AIDS and sex." Over 100 silk-screen posters were the result.

The center's full archive (primarily acquired through donations) represents an array of subjects, style and form--including offset, lithography, linocut, woodblock and photocopy. The oldest piece is pre-Russian Revolution (1906); the newest is a tribute to Nicole Brown Simpson titled "When Love is a Contact Sport" (1995).

"The work probably leans towards the left in terms of political rhetoric," Wells says. "Everything from racism to the Gulf War, immigration, censorship, the environment. It covers a lot of ground."

Caring for the posters themselves is another huge project.

"We use white gloves," Wells says. "We treat them like they're rare--because by the time we get them, they are rare. The 1906 one--somebody found it at a garage sale, really shredded, so we've encapsulated it in plastic."

Of course taking the posters on tour doesn't help preserve their quality. "It's a conflict," she admits. "You want to save them, and you want them to be seen. We do the best we can."

The center's research facilities are available to scholars, students, filmmakers and artists at no charge.

The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities is at 401 Wilshire Blvd., 7th floor, Santa Monica. Public viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, through July 7. Admission is free.

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