POLITICAL PRINTS Works by Chris Stain, Josh MacPhee, Pete Yahnke, and Gaia (clockwise from upper left).
The political printmaking group JustSeeds was begun by Josh MacPhee in Portland, Oregon, in 1998 as a way to distribute art and posters. Over the years it's grown into a worker-owned coop of 26 artists from the United States, Canada, and Mexico who do printmaking and design "that reflects a radical social and political stance." Their causes range from anti-war to workers' rights to prison reform. In their 2010 group portfolio "Resourced!," on view at AS220's Main Gallery (115 Empire Street, Providence, through May 28), they turn to ecology.
The sharpest image is MacPhee's screenprinted drawing of a seemingly endless field of tree stumps (think Dr. Seuss's The Lorax). There are no words and the design is simple but hypnotic and horrifying in its repetition. Pittsburgh artist Shaun Slifer's stark poster features the slogan "Coal will never be clean" in big, bold lettering between little decorations depicting three small smokestacks and a skull.
Meredith Stern of Providence (and AS220's chief of performance space booking) took inspiration from the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island to create a two-color linocut about sustainable urban living. Under the slogan "Taking care of the earth is taking care of ourselves," people raise gardens, bike, ride public buses, and shop at a farmer's market. The people in Stern's broadsides are often awkwardly rendered and composed — which can seem like both folksy charm and, well, awkwardness. It's as if the urgency to convey all the important information throws her off her stride, because at the same time she has been making brilliant, dreamy multi-color linocuts (not seen here) of cats sewing a quilt together, planting gardens, or picking mushrooms in a forest (check it out at Craftland).
The JustSeeds gang struggles with spotty designs and slogans that are nonetheless inspiring in their vigorous, earnest dedication to the cause. Chris Stain's conventional design depicts (an unidentified) César Chávez holding a megaphone saying, "Farm workers are society's canaries." New Yorker Molly Fair clumsily draws protesters waving arms and holding a banner which reads "Defend rivers, water and life. No more dams!" as behind them waters pour out of the colossal Three Gorges Dam in China, which has flooded homes further in the background.
URBAN RENEWAL Bec Young's Build Up Detroit.
Sometimes the point is muddled. Erik Ruin of Philadelphia draws a haunting image of a man cracking a four-story-tall dam with a pickaxe as a crowd of people wait aimlessly below, in danger of being swept away by the water. Or so it appeared to me. Ruin intended it as a call for people to reclaim rights to water which he says is "growingly monopolized and commodified by corporations and the states."
Great political posters grab our hearts and make the politics involved look cool. Think of J. Howard Miller's 1942 poster of Rosie the Riveter flexing her muscle and saying "We can do it!" or Shepard Fairey's 2008 Obama "Hope" poster. Consider Lorraine Schneider's 1967 anti-Vietnam War sunflower design with the slogan "War is not healthy for children and other living things" or Ester Hernandez's 1982 poster that turned the model on the Sun-Maid Raisins box into a grinning skeleton to warn of the dangers of agricultural pesticides. They appeal to our sense of duty and honor, our outrage, our hopes for a better world.