The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
It seems only appropriate, as this campaign season (at last) draws to a close, that I spent the last Saturday before election day browsing through politically-charged poster designs – in “Poster Offensive 6” at Big Table Studio, and in the affiliated retrospective of work from earlier iterations of the exhibition series, on display down the street at Amsterdam Bar and Hall. “Poster Offensive” is the brainchild of Jeff Johnson from the Minneapolis-based Spunk Design Machine; he put together the first show in 2004, in response to George W. Bush’s re-election. The series is billed as “an independent, non-partisan poster show, which utilizes the politically potent medium of the poster to showcase contemporary interpretations and critiques of political and social issues.”
Minnesota’s known nationally for it’s diverse, innovative design scene – from gig posters to branding for international ad campaigns, editorial illustrations to old-school letterpress and artisanal book arts, we’re lousy with designers and printmakers around here. And the "Poster Offensive" shows reliably represent a well-rounded cross-section of that talent and an intriguing snapshot of local causes célèbres and political memes of the moment.
This year’s show includes poster designs by 25 artists, emerging and established alike, including Big Table Studio regulars like Nick Zdon, Kelly Purlick, Dale Flattum (Tooth), Bill Moran and Spunk Design Machine, and other notable artists like J. Namdev Hardisty from the MVA Studio, Ruthann Godollei, Corey Loven and Ben Levitz from Studio on Fire.
Look at the work on view, and it’s immediately clear this isn’t a year for irony or abstraction. Previous years’ shows featured high design posters – sometimes whimsical, sometimes self-consciously oblique, often quite ornate – that ran the gamut: tackling climate change, women’s reproductive rights, government surveillance, guns, media saturation and world peace. The current “Poster Offensive” works seem to me more single-minded in their messaging – more sober and more immediate in their concerns – than those made for these exhibitions in years prior. The sluggish economy looms large in this batch, with a number of references to unemployment and the national debt, the vast and growing divide between the rich and the rest of us. A few posters point to swelling currents of popular restiveness and protest, with nods both to the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement. A number of designs specifically respond to Minnesota’s proposed Marriage Amendment, which would enshrine in the state’s constitution an exclusively heterosexual “one man, one woman” definition of marriage. More than a few simply urge their viewers to vote, and vote mindfully.
The aesthetic sensibility in these new designs is also stripped down, unambiguous: black, white and primary colors dominate the visual field; text is central. Take Ruthann Godollei’s “Austerity:” a no-frills leather belt is looped on itself at one end, uncinched, holding up nothing but pierced end to end with holes for tightening; the palette is somber, shades of brown, black and white. Godollei’s is a perfectly evocative image, an eloquent, concise case against making up budget shortfalls on the backs of already beleaguered populations.
And this year’s posters work better as vectors of their political messages, they're more effective as propaganda for precisely that tightness of focus and clear conjunction of form and content. It's a strong show of political poster art – thoughtful, well designed and relevant – worth a visit, even if you're sick to death of politics.
“Poster Offensive 6” will be on view through December 3 at Big Table Studio, 375 Wabasha North, St. Paul; the show’s featured poster designs are available for purchase on site. Big Table Studio hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, visit bigtablestudio.com or www.posteroffensive.com/index.php.