A strange allegorical representation of New York State in 2020 designed by Governor Andrew Cuomo is about as “with the times” as a parchment scroll. The poster, presented during a private reception on Wednesday night following the governor’s annual State of the State address, is subtitled “The Progressive Capital” and depicts a morally righteous vessel with sails of “leadership,” “tolerance,” and “accomplishment” navigating a storm-roiled “Sea of Division.” In its turbulent journey, the ship must also contend with a cast of nefarious characters, including an octopus called Intolerance who, like his namesake, has not aged well; a tiny pink squid embodying “Government Incompetence”; and what looks to be a huffing sea monster simply labeled “Anger.”
Fortunately, a few benevolent personages stand atop the Hudson River palisades in the background, including a graduation cap (“Free Tuition”), a maquette of a city (“Infrastructure”), and a rainbow banner “Marriage Equality”), along with other objects presumably symbolizing Cuomo’s policy achievements over the last 10 years. The text size for these headings is minuscule and all but illegible on a screen, forcing one to crane their necks, squint, and ask themselves: whom, exactly, was this poster intended for?
Cuomo worked on the sketch for the poster for two months while preparing for the State of the State speech; his portrait artist, the Brooklyn-based Rusty Zimmerman, translated his design to paint. Despite the oddities of Cuomo’s vision, the rendering itself is expressive and meticulous. Zimmerman has a long trajectory as an artist outside of his work with Cuomo, leading initiatives such as the Free Portrait Project: Crown Heights.
According to Nick Reisman, a reporter for Spectrum News, among the numerous visual antecedents of Cuomo’s design was a 1900s campaign illustration for Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan, known as the “Bryan Octopus” for its characterization of big corporations as a greedy cephalopod.
A photo of an informational text displayed at the Capitol and tweeted by Reisman traces Cuomo’s design to “the days before TV and radio advertisements, social media, or direct mail,” when government figures would put up physical posters in public spaces to get their message out. “In just a few drawings and words, they sought to tell their entire story,” reads the text. While it’s difficult to say how much of a story Cuomo’s picture is telling us, its old-fashioned aesthetic certainly takes us back to the days before television and radio … and women’s suffrage. And civil rights. And penicillin.
The poster has circulated widely on social media, where it seems anyone with an opinion about it has a bone to pick — from accusations of the governor’s egocentrism to issues with the dissonance between the heraldic visual devices pictured and the actual degree of Cuomo’s accomplishments. One artist retweeted the image with the comment, “Andrew Cuomo seems like one of those nightmare art directors.”
Cuomo’s confusing poster is proof that an image can still shock and rouse, and not by dint of being provocative or over-stimulating but rather the complete opposite.