Take it to the streets

By GREG COOK  |  October 2, 2007

The artwork is grouped by subject: food, auto parts, copyright-infringing cartoon characters, scantily clad mamacitas (hot chicks) strutting their stuff, animals, burlesque shows, fancy ladies advertising the work of beauty salons, creepy Michael Jacksons. School study-guide posters explain male and female reproductive anatomy, drug addiction, laboratory tools, and historical events. Lucha Libre masked-wrestling posters are mostly text in two or three colors peppered with a few stock wrestler images. Shops are represented by icons of their trade or wares: a padlock, keys, wrench, tire, washing machine, watches, car seats, fan, vacuum, hot-water heater, refrigerator, blenders.

Three freestanding columns display enlarged color copies of lurid comic-book covers and the packaging of powders and soaps that promise to get men begging at your feet. A comic with a title roughly translated as “The Law of the Gun: Hot and Wild for Your Stud” features a gun-slinging cowboy, a busty woman falling out of her lace teddy as she grabs for a rifle, and a dog with a ruffled clown collar. Nearby hangs a giant Roy Lichtenstein–style painted banner reproducing a comic-book image of a suited guy beating up a woman. Throughout the show, gender roles lean toward the sexist, but no more than what you see in American liquor stores.

The images are divorced from their original context and purpose — which are vaguely documented in small photos running along the wall bases — to focus your attention on their graphic flair. The comic-book covers can be slick, but most of the artwork here ranges from functional to ham-handed. It has an alluring frankness and humor, especially when, say, salon beauties come out looking like bug-eyed aliens.

Despite its appeal, “¡Sensacional!” appropriates the street imagery with an air of classism and colonialism that makes it somewhat difficult to embrace. The curators provide no names for the artists — not even the ones they commissioned to paint copies of street signs, not even the four painters in a video documenting their process. Rounding up all the names would have been difficult, likely impossible, but to identify none of the artists shows disrespect. The show, as this artistic anonymity makes clear, is about design — and specifically about the exhibition designers who appropriate all this street imagery and repackage it. The result is a showcase of their vision; the artists come second.

But it is a cool vision. It turns ladies’ lips into giant Pop Art banners, wrestlers into gods, and an array of salon beauties into a cockeyed technicolor Andy Warhol grid. Cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn leaps for joy hawking “Fresh Chicken.” And there are cartoony factory and office posters in wickedly poor taste. A man who’s been slapped by a fuming woman in a form-fitting dress illustrates the slogan “Don’t touch machines you’re not familiar with.” Another poster features a pair of women who could be twins from a Doublemint commercial, except that one is busty and curvy and the other is flat-chested and straight as a rail. The slogan: “Similar but not the same, the difference is quality.”

“¡Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics” | Massachusetts College of Art, Paine Gallery, 621 Huntington Ave, Boston | Through December 1

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