Poster Art Then and Now: RISD’s John Maeda

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with John Maeda (20 minutes, 9 mb mp3)

Call this Take 2 on the show of Soviet poster art, through the eyes of a 40-year-old Japanese American graphic artist who just happens to be the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda. On a gabby, impromptu stroll through Tom Gleason’s show of Russia’s 20th Century art and propaganda, what struck me in John Maeda’s presence was how familiar and modern are the tools and the underlying power of this work – how closely the red-white-and-black Soviet posters of the 1920s suggest the basic scheme of the early LIFE magazine covers; how the red silhouettes of Lenin foreshadow the brilliant figures of the street dancers in the inescapable iPod posters of this moment in global advertising; how quickly the red-and-white Lenin poster (above) could be rearranged into a Coca-Cola ad. The experiment here, maybe the longshot lesson, is in thinking out loud about new images in front of our faces: away with the earphones and the recorded tour guide; can we tear our eyes off the tags and the texts and make our own links of eye, brain, memory and imagination with the public art of another time and place. The intrepid John Maeda plunges in with the mind of a computer engineer and designer (of sneakers and clothing, among other things) who did most of his art studies in Japan, who’s the shepherd now of a rising generation of artists in many media, including paint, pottery and posters.

Speaking of poster art… I asked John Maeda about the viral power and booming prices for the iconic images that RISD’s own Shep Fairey designed for the Obama campaign. What’s the secret of the posters’ colors, half-abstraction, apparent simplicity and openness to imitation and parody? And why, by the way, do we recoil from the personality cult when we see it in images of Stalin, and tend to embrace it in Shep Fairey’s rendition of Barack Obama?

Shepard Fairey’s Obama

Yeah, did a good job with that. His style is very authentic: it’s very grounded in history, grounded in the liberal arts… The secret? It’s the timing… It could have been any image, but he hit it at the right time with the right kind of scale. He uses the Web very well – another example of an artist who uses the Web in a very propaganda-infiltrator style. Combinations of these things create these perfect storms of popularity… You’ve got to love Obama first of all. If you don’t like Obama, you’re not going to like that [Shep Fairey image]. But the reason that image is liked is because Obama is no longer a person. Obama is an icon. Obama is abstracted into fewer colors. Obama is a radiant being, a belief figure, because we are so heart love-struck for someone or something to believe in. Think about people who aren’t religious, you know, we humans survive because we were inherently religious, inherently spiritual. So people who don’t have a god per se want to expect their political, their super-whatever, to be more than human: superhuman. So the Obama poster makes him look like he’s beyond humanity. We can trust him because he’s not one of us, he’s above all of us. But he’s also one of us.

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  • the zak

    Please interview the new president of our Boston Public Library !

  • nother

    Chris says at the end: “Talk back about your own style of looking at art.”

    I spontaneously attended the Madonna concert the other night. A friend offered an extra free ticket an hour before the show. My calculation was: Straight guys don’t attend Madonna concerts (at least they don’t brag about it) vs. Madonna is an iconic figure, she was my first crush, and she kicks ass.

    So the show got going and so did my body. I couldn’t have stopped dancing and moving my body for anything – and we were way up in the balcony. I bring this episode up because at one point during the show I looked around and gasped at how many motionless bodies surrounded me, staring awe like at Madonna. I was sad for them, they were missing out on her true art – bring’n the dance…the party…the swing.

    I was reminded of this when John Maeda spoke of the passive nature of looking at things.

    People can be so reluctant to engage. But art is a two-way street.

    The greatest architecture is not great because it’s pretty, it’s great when you walk, work, live, or pray IN it. The way the sun is directed in like a vital piece of furniture, or the way the stairs fantastically wiggle up, or the way that the hallways force people to run into each other.

    Yet, the architecture tours still pass by with camera-toting people, outside looking in – outside looking in.

  • nother

    When I experience the Obama poster the first thing I see is a smile. It’s very subtle, but it’s a self-assured smile – can you picture a Stalin smile? I also see cool – because if Obams is anything, he is cool – did you catch the cool way he sat on the stool during the town hall debate? This poster could be a close up of that.

    Of course he’s looking up and to his left.

    But what I find most interesting is the color scheme. Half red and half blue – I get it, red and blue states. The red is not satire though, it’s sincere, and it’s meant to convey that he has some Ronald Reagan in him – see the stark red tie.

    The blue though is the most interesting. The blue on his face is nuanced, it’s in different shades – just like Obama himself.

  • potter

    Without going back to the audio stroll for a quote, I think Maeda was talking about feeling sorry for artists who had to do this for a living. Not from the examples here. Artists have been having to do their art for a living for political/social/religious purpose a very long time, hundreds of years- and include Michelangelo and Rembrandt in that group ( as well as Toulouse-Lautrec for the poster) and countless others before and after. Artists have managed somehow to express themselves through art anyway- either on the side, or within the constraints of the assignment. And this is what is so wonderful and interesting about the posters.

  • filkee

    Thank you so much for your show. I’m deeply and troublingly obsessed with the election and when you do things beyond that sphere, I grudgingly go along and always wind up pleased to have been elsewhere for a minute.

  • filkee

    Thank you so much for your show. I’m deeply and troublingly obsessed with the election and when you do things beyond that sphere, I grudgingly go along and always wind up pleased to have been elsewhere for a minute.

  • Wow, firstly I have to day I have a bias. Not only do I live in Moscow half the year, but I used to work at the Addison Gallery in Andover, so I’ve had my fill of both Sovietism and Artspeak. Having said that, I just that God, that he didn’t say any of them images “poped.” It was an interesting walk, dispite the fact I was biased against it conceptually.

    Here are a few random comments in a random order.

    I believe that Red is so prominant, not just because it was the official color of the communist party, but Russians have a deep fixation with the color. Even their name for the color Krasni, is simular to their word for beautiful krasivi. I don’t think it signifies blood or terror in any way, but beauty.

    You can walk through these images and see fear and oppression, but they were really expressions of a much more beautiful nature. I don’t think they wanted people to feel small, they wanted people think the together they were big. Soviet “oppression” was really an alternative to Tzarist/Church oppression, it was a message of elevation, even if it didn’t really turn out like that. These postered didn’t impliment opression, if anything they promised less opression.

    This style of “official” Soviet art is also naturally compelling, not just politically, but take for the example all the old movie posters that have been turned into t-shirts for Brooklyn hipsters. The art lends credence to the message. Like when the Beatles sang All You Need Is Love. I could write a song by the same name, and it wouldn’t start a revolution, it was the artistic genius that made the message clear.

    We can image these posters hanging in place of our Obama or McCain posters, but we shouldn’t look at it through our 20th century eyes. This kind of massed produced “publishing house” style of printing was something new in the Soviet countries at this time, so it had a much bigger impact. No one ever hung a poster for the Tzar, or anybody. These weren’t just posters, they were billboards, sides of buildings, it was an all out visual blitz.

    Speaking of the 21st century, Edinaya Russia (The One Russia – Putin’s party) has taken a page from the Soviet book, in their use of imagery.

    I’ll stop going on about this and other things and just end with saying an interesting, thought provoking show, thanks

  • Just listened to both Russian poster shows, great! I loved them and the slideshow. “Do the 5 year coal plan in 3” wow!

    When I first saw Fairey’s Obama poster I think one reason I liked it was because whether you relate it to Soviet posters, or they also reminded me of WPA posters, that bold, flat, primary-color style has for me “left-wing” associations. More recently the anti-corporate WTO protest movement has used a similar bold graphic style. For me this style says “Progressive” loud and clear. If I may go so far, beyond the initial impact of the bold solid color with cubist angles there is, an implied nostalgic respect for labor. Obama could be talking about uniting the country and acting bipartisan but these posters say “Workers of the World Unite”.

  • 12/18/08 – Time Magazines Man of the Year cover of Obama is designed by Shepard Fairy. There is a video clip interviewing Fairy on the Time Website.