For years, civic and cultural eminentoes have tried to get people to refer to Huntington Avenue as “Avenue of the Arts.” Good luck with that! It’s been about as successful as getting New Yorkers to call Sixth Avenue “Avenue of the Americas.” For the next six weeks, though, Huntington Avenue qualifies as “Avenue of the Posters.” “Art in the Street: European Posters” runs through July 21 at the Museum of Fine Arts, and “Graphic Advocacy: International Posters for the Digital Age 2001-2012” runs at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Paine Gallery through March 2. The gallery, with its two-story height, extended balcony, plaster reliefs, and Palladian windows, is one of the city’s most pleasing exhibition spaces.
The two shows could hardly differ more. “Art in the Street” is elegant, historical, and has enormous aesthetic appeal. “Graphic Advocacy” is sprawling, contemporary, and replete with the excitement that comes of passionate commitment. It includes 122 examples of polemical posters by artists from 32 countries. (An interesting aspect of the show is the absence of distinct national styles. We are all now citizens of the Web, inhabitants of a truly global popular culture.)
All posters are presentational. They are meant to be quickly legible, offering information in a visually arresting way. Political posters are also declamatory. They offer information, yes, and — with any luck — no less arrestingly, but with an urgency and tendentiousness. When a political poster works (think of James Montgomery Flagg’s “Uncle Sam Wants You,” from World War I, or Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster, from 2008), it transcends ideology to become part of cultural discourse. When it doesn’t work, it’s just propaganda. Not that a successful one isn’t propaganda, too; rather, viewers don’t notice. A spoonful of artistry helps the ideology go down.
Some spoons are less full than others, of course. Many of those in “Graphic Advocacy” can have cluttered designs or muscularly bright colors (the few in black-and-white jump off the walls). The German graphic artist Lex Drewinski, who has a poster in the show, makes an acute comment. “I am at pains not to decorate my ‘window-on-the-world’ posters too much, to avoid flowerpots and patterned curtains that might merely stand in the way of clear insights and vision.” It’s advice too often ignored. That said, there is a certain utility in heavy-handedness. It’s like turning up the volume, increasing the screen size, not holding back on the Tabasco. There’s an immediate impact — and impact is what posters are all about, and political posters especially. A message is no good unless it’s delivered. True, it still may not be good once it’s delivered, but that’s not the deliverer’s problem.
Many viewers may like this show more than “Art in the Street.” It’s more immediate, more familiar, less refined. Contemporary culture doesn’t seem to place much value on refinement. Not that all posters in the show are blunt or overly reductive. Joe Scorsone and Alice Drueding’s “Alternatives to War,” from 2003, comments on the invasion of Iraq with great visual wit. It shows in silhouette a soldier serially skiing, gardening, birdwatching, and so on. Julia Thomas’s 2008 “Women’s Right to Choose” is equally elegant in conception and appearance, consisting of a dress hanging from a hanger made up of opposing statement about abortion. And, it must be said, what may be the single most attractive poster in the show, Dave Loewenstein’s “Tip of the Iceberg,” promoting the Occupy movement, is so subtle it just doesn’t work. The conceptual kapow that can hobble an image in strictly artistic terms can also be just the thing to get a message across.
The show is loosely arranged by issue or event. Besides Occupy, they include 9/11, Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, Fukushima, Iran, the BP oil spill, fossil-fuel consumption, global warming. Certain motifs recur: hearts, birds (especially doves), flowers, red disks (the rising sun of Japan). Occasionally a specific influence is evident. Constructivism and Expressionism rear their ever-reliably riled-up heads. Sebastian Kubica would appear to know his Saul Bass movie-credit sequences. There’s even a Jugendstil-looking poster attacking capital punishment.
Mostly the artists focus on the interplay of concept and visual expression to the exclusion of style qua style. The breaking-up ice floe shaped like a polar bear in Hilppa Hyrkäs’s “Stop Climate Change” speaks for itself. So does the section of dollar bill in Ashraf Refaat Elfiy’s “In Oil We Trust.” Marion Deuchars’s use of a burka to cover up a woman’s mouth in “Where Is My Hope” is virtuosic in its simplicity. It also chimes with Frank Arbelo’s “Because This Mouth Is Mine.” Arbelo’s poster shows a confining hand over a man’s mouth. Using a piece of chalk, the man is shown drawing himself a new mouth over the censoring hand. The image is at once inspired and inspiring. It also offers its own tribute to the liberating power of the graphic artist.