The title of The Graphic Imperative, a retrospective poster exhibit currently showing at San Diego State's University Art Gallery, speaks volumes about the show's intentions. The word 'imperative' refers to a type of command but also means 'necessary' and 'urgent.' 'Graphic,' of course, refers to graphic arts, but it can also be used to describe a powerful, explicit image.
Isn't it astounding how effectively you can communicate with a couple of words? Imagine, now, the power of words combined with pictures, and you begin to understand why the humble poster--at its basest form, defined as a posted bill readable from 10 feet away--is worthy of its own exhibit.
The Graphic Imperative, originally conceived and curated by three professors at the Massachusetts College of Arts, is subtitled: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice & the Environment 1965-2005. The collection of 111 posters from 22 countries aspires to 'agitate, advocate and activate'--some with the haunting gentleness of a whisper and some with a fist-thrusting shout.
There's Japanese artist Yusaku Kamekura's 1983 'Hiroshima Appeals,' for example, in which burning butterflies tumble down against an ashy background. The exquisite creatures represent the beauty of life and their flaming wings the indiscriminate destruction wrought by the 1945 atomic blast. Less subtle, Russian designer Alexander Faldin's 1987 anti-smoking poster shocks with a woman's smile, perfect red lips parted to reveal vile-looking cigarette butts instead of teeth.
Tina Yapelli, University Art Gallery's director, knew she wanted to bring the exhibition to San Diego when she first heard about it. She enlisted the help of Susan Merritt, who heads up SDSU's graphic-design program. Though the costs exceeded the gallery's modest budget, the two women found community-based financial backing for what they believed was a timely educational opportunity.
'It's a chance for students to examine sociopolitical issues within the context of what they're learning in school,' Yapelli explains.
That context ranges from gallery preparation to fine arts and graphic design. Students participated in the setup--alongside Yapelli, they arranged the posters first by theme and then by color and composition--and the SDSU staff will use the exhibit as a jumping-off point for discussions and class projects.
'The faculty will be using it as a teaching tool,' says Yapelli. 'I can't force them to incorporate it into the curriculum, but I have a real advocate in Susan.'
It's a few weeks before opening, and Yapelli and Merritt are taking me on a walk-through of the exhibit, which has no labels or signage at this point. The posters must do all the talking.
'What's strong about this work is that it uses imagery of a symbolic nature,' Merritt says. 'It's a chance for my students to see powerful symbols at work in many different ways.'
One of the most common symbols, the hands, become a quiet and inspiring peace symbol folded into the wings of a dove, as seen in Masuteru Aoba's 'Peace is in Our Heart' (Japan, 1980). A bleaker image is Chinese artist Fang Chen's 'Victory' (1998), a blackened, almost charred-looking hand with two fingers forming a 'V' The remaining digits have been lopped off and the palm lines create a stark contrast in white. There's so much packed into the simple poster, which functions as a potent warning and message of cultural dissent. The victory 'V' can also represent a peace sign, but those obliterated fingers reveal the complex costs of triumph. The lined hand references Chinese folklore, in which the past and the future can be read in the palm.
In classrooms, graphic-art students study semiotics, the theory of signs and symbols and their function within language, visual and otherwise. But book learning proves a lot more engaging when students can apply their knowledge to an exhibit such as this. A gallery tour becomes a probing investigation of how an image can communicate universal ideas across decades, borders and languages.
This public exhibit is not the exclusive domain of students, but even non-academics would do well to approach it with a critical eye. Which images are the most effective and which are the least? Which are immediately forgettable and which remain seared in the consciousness forever?
On most college campuses, the poster gets a bum rap. Tattered photos of bands and beer girls that hang in dorm rooms belie the significant history of a medium for image-making that far pre-dates Photoshop and $99 inkjet printers. Since the invention of lithography at the end of the 18th century, mass-produced posters have served countless purposes, from advertising to bringing art to the homes of those who could never afford originals. Through Oct. 10, The Graphic Imperative celebrates the poster for its most crucial cultural role: Giving artists powerful, inspiring voices that cannot be silenced, no matter what they hope to communicate.
Visit artgallery.sdsu.edu or www.thegraphicimperative.org.