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Monomania L.A.: Carol Wells and the Politics of Postering

Through a series of short films and articles, Monomania L.A. profiles five L.A. as Subject collectors who have turned a monomaniacal obsession with a particular aspect of Southern California history into a public resource. These collectors have documented disparate subjects -- the California orange, sci-fi reading circles, political graphics, a Mexican rancho, African American photographers -- but their stories share one thing in common: a passion for history that has enriched our understanding of Southern California's past.

 

When Carol Wells started collecting, the art establishment shunned political posters. Even today most artists intend them to be ephemeral rather than enduring works. A bullet hole scars one of Wells' posters. Graffiti on another disagrees with the message. Some she's salvaged from dumpsters. But Wells believes that her vast archive testifies to the power of posters to effect social change by interrupting our daily routines with their bold graphics, strong colors, and provocative slogans.

"Without the artists who made the posters and the activists who used them to educate and organize around critical issues," Wells says, "this world would be in much worse shape."

Like many archives, Wells' Center for the Study of Political Graphics preserves materials that were never meant to be saved but, by gathering them into one place, transforms them into an important primary source record.

The flat files that line the center's walls are now an essential resource for any historian of postwar political activism and social justice movements. Open one drawer and the graphics that spurred the 1978 creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area will catch your eye. Peek into another and you'll discover one artist deftly link Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates' full-throated support for the War on Drugs (he once told a U.S. Senate committee that "casual drug users ought to be taken out and shot") to the 1991 Rodney King beating.

Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?
Who's the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim? Artist: Yolanda M. Lopez. Offset, 1994, San Francisco, California. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics

Wells sees the posters as more than simply historical documents, though.

"One of the things that we're trying to do is get political posters taken seriously as an art form," said Wells, a medieval art historian who taught at Cal State Fullerton for more than a decade.

Within the mainstream art world, Wells told us, there's a tendency to discount works with explicitly political content.

"For the most part museums don't show political art unless they're by Picasso or someone who's famous by something else," she said. "When we started the center, political posters were not considered an art form. They were considered agitprop -- which is a pejorative."

Wells herself once shared such notions.

"I literally had that dismissive attitude toward a poster that, once I realized how important posters are, I resented in other people."

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It was a 1981 research trip to Nicaragua that changed the young art historian's mind--and also changed her life by inspiring her to collect these important works of art.

Supporters of the revolutionary Sandinista regime were then producing posters with hopeful messages about the country's future. Wells had just given one such poster to her host family when a neighbor boy dropped in. She watched as the boy gravitated toward the poster's bold graphic and, then, began to mouth the slogan of its creator, the Nicaraguan Women's Association: "Construyendo la patria nueva hacemos la mujer nueva" ("In constructing the new country we are becoming the new woman").

"That was my epiphany moment," Wells said. "The light bulb went off and I realized, that's how posters work. You're going about your daily life when they make you stop, make you think, and make you ask a question. And questions change us, because they break through the bubble of our daily existence."

Since that pivotal moment in 1981, Wells has accumulated some 85,000 posters and curated dozens of traveling exhibitions that have appeared in museums, galleries, libraries, and schools. Her collection formed the basis for the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, which Wells founded in 1988. Today, it's the largest collection of post-World War II human rights and protest posters in the United States.

Construyendo Poster
Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Another Mother for Peace Poster
Artist: Lorraine Schneider, Another Mother for Peace. Offset, 1967, Beverly Hills, California. Courtesy of the Center for Political Graphics.
Nelson Mandela Poster
Artist: Rupert García. Offset, 1981 San Francisco. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Forkscrew Graphics Iraq Poster
Artist: Forkscrew Graphics. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
ACT UP Poster
Artist: ACT UP/NY, Gran Fury, The Silence = Death Project. Offset, 1987, New York. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Trickle Down Poster
iRaq [Abu Ghraib prisoner]. Artist: Forkscrew Graphics. Silkscreen, 2004, Los Angeles, California. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Bring Them Home Alive Poster
Artist: Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Offset, 1967 Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Center fo rhte Study of Political Graphics.
Santa Monica Mountains Poster
Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
May Day 2006 Poster
Artist: Ami Motevelli, Self-Help Graphics and Art. Silkscreen, 2006, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Pueblo Unido Poster
Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Ecology Now Poster
Artist: Earth First Offset, ca. 1970, United States. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Amerika Is Devouring Its Children Poster
Artist: Jay Belloli. Silkscreen, 1970, Berkeley. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

 

This project was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit http://www.calhum.org. 

 

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