Art

Historic Protest from 1960s and 1970s California

The opening to Decade of Dissent. Images by the author.
A view of "Decade of Dissent" (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — West Hollywood, known popularly today for its thriving design culture and LGBT community. During the day, you can visit any number of design studios and the sprawling Pacific Design Center complex. At night, Santa Monica Blvd. lights up with raucous bars and bouncing clubs catering to the local community.

Affectionately known as “Weho,” the city, which is independent from Los Angeles, has also been a site for numerous citizen actions, from Proposition 8 protests to protests against the Hyatt. Going back even further to the middle of the 20th C., West Hollywood’s residents protested against a local bar restaurant, Barney’s Beanery, that put up a homophobic sign.

It’s only natural, then, that a new show, Decade of Dissent: Democracy in Action 1965-1975, should open in West Hollywood’s terrific new community library, just across from the Pacific Design Center. Part of the larger series, PST … It All Started Here — West Hollywood Celebrates Pacific Standard Time, the show focuses on art made during the decade that the US fought in Vietnam.

“Whenever people organize and protest,” writes Carol A. Wells, director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, in the introductory text, “artists are in the forefront of the struggles for greater democracy and justice.”

Vic Dinnerstein's and John Jeheber's Jail to the Chief.
Vic Dinnerstein's and John Jeheber's "Jail to the Chief."

The show offers a sweeping scope of posters. The Committee to Abolish ROTC’s ROTC Must Go captures the anger at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the time. Andrew Zermeño’s “Huelga!,” which means “Strike!” in Spanish, was created for César Chávez at the United Farm Workers.

Other works, like the Gay Liberation Front’s Gay-In poster, show an active LGBT activist community during that time, acting in solidarity with groups in New York after Stonewall. The most surprising to me was a poster by George Stowe Jr. spoofing a Harper’s Bazaar cover with a graphic of fashions for a polluted era — the gas mask hasn’t come to fruition yet, but the anxieties remain.

The various poster designs touch on a number of issues, and the placards help illuminate the meaning and cultural-historical context behind the art. Take, for instance, Lorraine Schneider’s colorful, iconic “War is Not Healthy” sign, which  became a 1960s version of collaborative design that went viral:

Lorraine Schneider donated her etching for the face of the card, Dorothy Jones did the research, Barbara Avedon wrote the words and AMP [Another Mother for Peace] designer, Gerta Katz, did the distinctive calligraphy and layout. . . .

A first printing quickly sold out, as did a second of 5,000. Eventually 200,000 cards were sold, and members of Congress were flooded with them.

Some works were deemed too sensitive for public consumption at the time. Vic Dinnerstein’s “The Fascist Gun in the West,” which depicts Ronald Reagan in a film still holding a gun at the camera, exhibited in Mexico in 1981. According to the text, customs agents confiscated it when it returned to the US.

The setting for Decade of Dissent is particularly apropos and adds to the exhibition’s strength. Rather than a  gallery, the work is situated in the new West Hollywood library, designed to be a community and research center. The posters hang over a number of computer stations, representative of the very technologies now used to create political graphics and viral media.

And the library itself is situated at the nexus of Santa Monica and San Vicente, a convenient public access point that previously served as a site for protests against anti-gay marriage legislation in California. Video of those protests went viral just as quickly online, an echo of the political posters from almost half a century prior.

What the show most reveals, and what it helps shed light on in today’s political context, is the role of art and visual media in public protests and political organizing. The now infamous #STOPKONY2012 video recently became the most viral video in history (though not without controversy), and one of the most iconic images of the Occupy movement was a viral meme depicting a campus police officer pepper spraying different art historical references. In China, netizens spread so many images of a high speed rail collision that the government had to sack top officials at the Ministry of Railways.

The show’s organizers are clearly aware of the connection. Wells explains in her introductory text, “This exhibition documents the importance of poster art for developing and promoting the ideas and ideals of democracy in California during a very turbulent decade — not unlike the present.”

Decade of Dissent: Democracy in Action 1965-1975  runs until April 28 at the new West Hollywood Library (625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood). According to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, there will be an artist’s panel on March 31.

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