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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