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RIT's "The American Image"

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The American Image | through October 11 | Bevier Gallery, JamesE.BoothBuilding, RIT campus, 475-2646 | Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Monday-Thursday 7-9 p.m.; Saturday 1-4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2-4:30 p.m.

One nation under consideration

Whether promoting upcoming wrestling matches or church bazaars, posters keep us informed and aware of what's happening in our world in a more direct, personal way than most media. But the poster can be far more than a heads-up that your favorite band is coming to town. The American Image, an exhibition currently at RIT's Bevier Gallery, brilliantly illustrates this fact with a survey of the American poster from the turn of the 20th century to the present day.

The impressive grouping hails from the private collection of Mark Resnick, an executive at 20th Century Fox. But despite Resnick's day job, this exhibition offers much more than movie posters. The show's breadth and depth astounds. From a collection of several hundred posters, 78 are on display and address a wide range of topics: advertisements hang alongside calls for conservation; pro-military designs from World War II share walls with posters railing against the current administration.

American posters are wedded to social history, and political themes weave a distinctive thread through this exhibition. Government-sponsored posters from the New Deal era glorify the benefits of this enormous social program with images informing rural farmers that electricity --- and presumably prosperity --- is on the way. James Montgomery Flagg, designer of the famous Uncle Sam "I Want YOU!" poster, is represented by a lesser-known but no less moving exhortation to enlist. Standing Patton-like before a large American flag, a GI clutches a pistol in one hand and forms a clenched fist with the other. While the text encourages us to take up arms, the image almost demands it.

Not surprisingly, posters from the 1970s show a considerable shift in attitudes toward combat. Pride in our armed forces is abruptly replaced with uncertainty and, in some instances, shame. A gut-wrenching work by Peter Brandt depicts several slain Vietnamese, including children. Text from an interview with a U.S. soldier is printed in blood red and runs along the poster's edges, the top asking "Q. And Babies?" with the bottom's solemn reply "A.And Babies."

Although weighty politics are present, there is still plenty to smile about, including a selection of music posters that features one of Resnick's earliest acquisitions. In conversation he recounted purchasing the LP Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits upon its release in 1967. Inside was a folded poster featuring Milton Glaser's iconic image of Dylan's face as a black-on-white silhouette with wild streams of color making up his signature mop. Resnick carefully removed the poster and "archived" it under the bed in his childhood room. It now hangs alongside Richard Avedon's equally groovy image of John Lennon rendered in hot yellow, red, and purple.

Some of the show's oldest pieces are posters that helped advertise magazines that might have gone unnoticed on a crowded newsstand. Particularly striking is Florence Lundborg's 1896 poster advertising The Lark, a San Francisco literary journal. Note that as you move around the richly textured woodblock print depicting a nude woman lounging in a lush tree, the different inks reflect the gallery lights, giving the poster a tactility similar to a painting.

Travel and tourism posters of the 1940s are unsurpassed in their marriage of art and advertising. Several are here, with E. McKnight Kauffer's work being the clear standout. Kauffer, originally from Britain, brought a modern, European flavor to poster design in the United States. Standing before his "American Airlines to New York" poster, your eyes dart across the shapes as thoughts turn to movement and flight. Despite the headaches often found at the airport, I couldn't wait for my next chance to lift off into the wild blue yonder.

If one unifying theme emerges from this wide-ranging survey it is the power of good design to inform, excite, agitate, and inspire. The formal simplicity of many of these posters conveys more information and emotion than entire volumes on the same subjects. The strength of great designers is their ability to whittle a complex message down to its essence and present it in a clear, memorable visual style. The adage "good design is invisible" holds true, but not in this room full of exceptional examples.

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