Art is usually better at questions than answers -- more effective suggesting than proclaiming. But an exhibit of contemporary political posters at Space gallery demonstrates a multitude of ways to do effective art with politics, and even political ends, in mind.
Paper Politics: An International Exhibition of Socially-Engaged Printmaking is a nationally touring show featuring about 200 artists. The curator is Josh MacPhee, who founded the famed Justseeds Artists Cooperative (now partly based in Pittsburgh), whose values the show broadly reflects: peace, justice, social equity and care for the environment.
"I am an idea you are a receiver," promises Ariane Jackson's elegant silkscreen, placed early in the show. But even the most graphically simple posters can communicate in quite different ways.
MacPhee's own "Labor Creates All Wealth," for instance, simply asserts a simple if paradigm-shifting idea. One of the exhibit's best works, meanwhile, is Dara Greenwald's stencil stating, "The hooded prisoners recognize one another by their coughs." Originally assembled in 2005, Paper Politics frequently comments on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and things like extrajudicial detention; with just a few dozen block letters, Greenwald summons the complex horror of such injustices.
The evils decried in Paper Politics range from the highly specific (the 1998 U.S. bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory) to the broad (gentrification, government surveillance). Some posters honor individuals (Martin Luther King, anarchist Emma Goldman) while others mourn history's very sweep: Alejandra Delfin's untitled block print, for instance, depicts repression of indigenous people from the conquistadores to the age of helicopters.
The exhibit's local component is curated by artist Mary Tremonte. (It now includes Stewart Williams' impish "Tea Baggers," originally pulled from the show because it contained nudity.) And with the focus mostly on national or global issues, it's good to see work like Amos Levy's "Ravenstahlin," excoriating the repressive police presence during last year's G-20 summit here.
Still, the more I saw, the more intriguing seemed the means of expression. Melanie Cervantes' graphic-novel style "La Resistencia" succeeds by implying a narrative connecting Palestinians to Western activists. Andalusia Knoll's silkscreen "Prisons: Slave Ships on Dry Land" juxtaposes a pair of schematic drawings to perfectly meld form and content. Four Fingers & a Thumb cracks wise against complacency with a mock prescription-drug ad: "Vote-agra. Cures electoral dysfunction." And a powerful screenprint by Erik Slador depicts five apes (a la Kubrick's 2001?) hurling a star-spangled missile at an unseen target -- the background blood-red, apes tinted monstrous green, their eyes white and pupil-less.
Some of the best works don't even "say" much, but instead engage us emotionally. Katie Truskoski's linocut portrait "Meena" ("founder of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women") merely makes us wonder, "Who is this person?" Likewise ASARO's big, riveting portrait "Zapata," the revolutionary's eyes direct and blazing.
Pittsburgh-based Tugboat Printshop's beautiful "Bonfire," a colorful, wide-screen Stone Age idyll, suggests no explicit message at all. And Thea Garr's block print "Cuando Cae la Lluvia" is simply beautiful art: a woman seen from the shoulders down, wading in ankle-deep water, a timeless symbol of perseverance.
Paper Politics continues through Oct. 24. Space, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7723