Art for (and by) the people

The walls at Food For Thought are plastered with nearly 200 posters by local and national printmakers. The posters politicize everything from bikes to Bush and are on display this month as part of a traveling group exhibit curated by Chicago artist and activist Jason MacPhee.

MacPhee kicked off the opening of Paper Politics with a slide presentation documenting a brief history of international activism through the printmaking and stenciling media.

One of the first political printmakers was Jacques Callot, a French engraver from the Baroque period famous for a series of works he did in 1633 entitled Les grandes mis퀨͌�res de la guerre or The Large Miseries of War. As the title suggests, the prints portray the horrors of war: homes being pillaged, prisoners of war being hanged, firing squads with guns already aimed and ready to fire and men being tortured at the stake. Callot’s etchings were widely distributed in France and influenced other socially conscious artists to utilize printmaking as a tool to communicate political and social messages on a mass scale.

In his lecture, MacPhee stressed that the nature of printmaking becomes “anachronistic as a communication tool. Printmaking is a democratic and populace way to communicate a message to the people.”

Indeed, printmaking is an inexpensive and egalitarian medium for artistic and political expression, and has historically driven modern political and social movements, such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1950s, the Chicano movement in Mexico in the 1960s and even Xerox art, a form of printmaking that brought the punk aesthetic to the masses.

The prints on display at Food For Thought carry messages ranging from very serious to somewhat silly. Many of the messages are witty, satirical and ironic, like the silkscreen by Los Angeles artist Josh Mintz. The poster features a pair of hands in prayer with the faces of George Bush (the elder) and George W. Bush looking up into the sky with smiles on their faces. The message reads: “The family that preys together stays together.”

Other posters, like Favianna Rodriquez’s silkscreen print We Are Not the Enemy, do not mince words. Rodriquez’s print pictures a woman wearing a hijab and a message that reads: “Genocide ?�� justice: we are not the enemy.”

And while many of the prints have messages that are overtly anti-Bush and anti-war, others are geared toward local activism, like Jeff Stark’s This is Your City. The Brooklyn artist created a stencil on brown paper portraying an abstract figure holding up a bike with a message that many Portlanders can identify with: “This is your city.”

As MacPhee explained in his lecture, the stenciling and graffiti movements challenge the notion of private property, which is a fundamental premise in the U.S. “Chicago spends $15 million a year for graffiti abatement, and I’ve seen it [graffiti] removed faster and faster. New York has a gun buyback program. They’ll pay you $200 for a gun and $500 to any snitch that is willing to give the address of a graffiti artist.”

Despite the risks of stenciling and postering, MacPhee explicitly pointed out that printmaking is a democratic medium that anybody can utilize. It’s an opportunity to unite with like-minded folk in the community and mass produce a message, whether you create a silkscreen print, a stencil or use a Xerox machine to do it. Printmaking is art by and for the people.

If you aren’t up to the task of creating your own, take a look at the posters and T-shirts available at MacPhee’s web site:


Paper Politics will be on display at Food For Thought Cafe through June 16.