CLEVELAND, Ohio – Grab your bullhorn and get ready to march: With apologies to Gil Scott Heron, the revolution isn’t being televised at the Cleveland Institute of Art; it’s rolling off a printing press.
“We Want Everything,’’ an immersive visual onslaught of left-leaning posters, banners, and covers for zines, LP albums, and books, is on view in its final days through Friday, June 10 in the art college’s Reinberger Gallery in University Circle, and it’s well worth a visit.
Organized by New York-based artist, designer, activist, and archivist Josh MacPhee, a 1996 graduate of Oberlin College, the show is a visual flashback for Baby Boomers weaned on protest movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, and a passing of the torch to a new generation of activists. It fills the gallery with a flood of graphic images advocating everything from recycling to prison reform to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.
The show’s energy is palpable and exhilarating. You can almost smell the wheat paste and spray paint. In fact, the exhibition includes an actual printmaking area with a large silkscreen set up on a tabletop, and with printer’s smocks hanging nearby.
Part of the installation invites visitors to experiment with images of protest incised on rubber stamps that can be printed on small sheets of paper. For the more adventurous, larger images can be reproduced in multiples on a Riso printer and modified to create posters for new protest movements.
The show’s take-it-to-the-streets spirit is further intensified by a four-hour soundtrack, curated by MacPhee, featuring songs of protest in Spanish, German, English, and Italian. You can immerse yourself in sounds of solidarity as you dive into texts debating whether strikes hurt the rich more than workers who engage in them.
MacPhee got involved in the exhibit at the invitation of CIA associate professor Maggie Denk-Leigh, chair of the Printmaking Department as an outgrowth of plans for the upcoming Mid America Print Council conference Oct. 13-16 at Kent State University. He’ll be speaking at CIA on Oct. 16, Denk-Leigh said.
MacPhee has also participated for several years in classes at the art institute including, “Propaganda: Media, Dissemination, Technique,’’ taught by faculty member Kat Burdine. And he collaborated on a related project with faculty to develop a portfolio of 11 new protest images that are on display in the show.
The main thrust of the exhibition is that protest imagery has evolved into a virtually universal visual language over the past 250 years, spurred by clashes over ideologies that have sought to crush human rights, and fueled by the ubiquity of cheap and accessible printing techniques, and visual networking through the Internet and mass media.
Though not framed as a personal retrospective, MacPhee’s sense of mission and intellectual generosity pervade the exhibition.
His projects have included launching Justseeds, a Chicago-based cooperative aimed at promoting and distributing radical art projects; co-founding Occuprint, an artistic offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011; and organizing the “Celebrate People’s History Poster Project,’’ a collaboration among 150 artists worldwide to create posters highlighting contributions of radical figures from John Brown to Malcolm X.
Elements of the CIA show include wall-sized banners designed by MacPhee, a massive collection of album covers he collected, and shelves full of books, magazines, and zines whose covers he designed.
The books include volumes on topics such as the violent history of Germany’s Red Army Faction in the 1970s, the writings of the feminist and activist Selma James, and the history of the International Workers of the World, AKA the Wobblies, the labor union founded in Chicago in 1905 that organized multiracial locals designed to bust Jim Crow segregation.
In a sign of his desire to appear less as a high-profile instigator and more as a foot soldier in mass movements, MacPhee had the books and magazines with covers he designed installed on low shelves running along the bottom of walls dominated by posters tacked at eye level above.
MacPhee’s banners in the exhibition, printed on vinyl sheets that hang from ceiling to floor, are unsigned, contributing to the show’s general tone of uprising and exhortation.
One banner portrays multi-colored pennants urging viewers to “Dream, Learn, Fight, Strike, Build, Grow and Listen.’’ Another depicts a wooden extension ladder accompanied by a big arrow pointing to the top that says: “No Wall Unclimbed.’’ After reading it, you notice a smaller arrow in the lower right corner of the banner that says: “No One Is Illegal.”
The heart of the exhibition is what MacPhee describes as a “Lexicon of International Political Graphics.’’ It’s a visual catalog of iconic motifs of resistance and rebellion that have spread across the world over the past 250 years.
In the manner of a teacher and practitioner eager to share his knowledge, MacPhee compiled 105 classic examples and had them printed in black-and-white on vinyl panels that hang on nails.
Viewers are invited to take the panels off the wall to read detailed texts printed on the back in which MacPhee recounts the history of each image.
Some examples are familiar parts of the visual vernacular, including variations on the raised fist, the V-for-victory sign, and figures pointing an index finger toward the viewer in the manner of the World War I Uncle Sam “I Want You For The U.S. Army’’ recruitment poster.
Others are rooted in the work of famous artists known for political and social engagement, including Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Félix Vallotton, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, John Heartfield, Alexander Rodchenko, Ben Shahn, and José Guadalupe Posada.
MacPhee’s reading of images and their uses is literate and astute. For example, he describes the broadly influential nature of Chinese socialist realism that grew out of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, while also pointing out that Cuban communists rejected social realism as “far too proscriptive’’ and limiting.
MacPhee also points out that Rodchenko’s famous and widely appropriated 1925 image of a woman cupping her hand next to her face as she smiles and shouts may seem like a classic piece of Soviet agitprop, but isn’t. It originated as an advertisement for a bookstore that became, in MacPhee’s words, “one of the most universally recognizable graphics of the 20th century.”
To demonstrate how political artists can mold such images to new purposes and new movements, MacPhee developed a new poster, entitled “Hands Off Trans Kids” as part of his interaction with students in Burdine’s recent class.
The poster combines a famous image of a grasping, outstretched hand, created in 1938 by John Heartfield, with other images borrowed from a 1970s feminist poster and a 1980s AIDS awareness.
One lacuna in the show is that it doesn’t indicate that the visual techniques used by left-leaning movements have been and are being used by people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
The Nazis effectively used visual branding to sell their poison. QAnon exploits variations on a certain letter, the Proud Boys have their rooster, and the Tea Party revived the curled snake from the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag.
MacPhee said in an interview that, if anything, the use of such imagery on the political right proves his theory that protest movements adopt signs and symbols that arouse emotions, although he said that “the right tends to stick to a smaller set of images feeding off a lexicon.’’
Certainly, in his “Hands Off Trans Kids’’ poster, MacPhee has come up with something that embodies the richness of the leftist visual tradition.
Love it or hate it, it’s a visual grabber. Along with the CIA show overall it’s a primer on how the next generation can use art and graphic design to take up any fight they choose.