TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Square One, at the corner of Washington and Central in downtown Phoenix, is a block of vacant storefronts, boarded up and painted with murals. Although beginning to show their age, the murals are bright; they're optimistic. When you're right up against them, walking by, the murals do a great job of obscuring the empty block behind them. They take you into a world of imaginary desert spaces and jaunty city streets, of free-floating balloons and smiling citizens.

Then you see the posters. First it's a ragged bit of signage commanding you to "Fart for Peace." Then it's a yellow string of phrases, telling you, "Men Use Condoms or Beat It." Next it's a black-and-white photocopy with a big handprint on top of a nude woman's body.

It's disconcerting. You squirm and adjust yourself in your pants. And then you look again. It's a strange feeling. Your brain is being yanked right out of Utopia.

The small posters that line storefronts and streetlights along Central Avenue can catch you by surprise, even when you know they're there. They make up a constantly changing exhibition, subject to the agendas of the putter-uppers and the whims of the taker-downers.

"Men Use Condoms or Beat It" appeared mysteriously before this year's Fiesta Bowl parade. "Fart for Peace" was around to greet visitors to the Iceberg Phoenix Grand Prix and Art Detour. The pro-choice poster of the woman and the hand used to be much more prevalent, but only a few copies remain, most only semi-intact.

These posters are an art of the moment--brash, direct and nasty stamps on the complacent hide of an unsuspecting Phoenix. Tough and anarchic, they come and go, reappearing at just the right moment to assault the public. They may be the best public art available in Phoenix.

Putting up posters on private or public property without a permit is a crime, although not a very serious one, in Phoenix. So, naturally, the people who put up these things prefer to remain anonymous. But a little asking around can lead you to the human beings behind such monikers as Partnership for a Thought-Free Amerika. They turn out to be artists who are active in the downtown Phoenix alternative art scene, and they intend these posters as art. As one posterer puts it, "The posters were made to be funny, to show people something they would never see anywhere else. We're trying to expose unsuspecting people to different thoughts."

These artists put as much care and technique into affixing a poster as they do into preparing a canvas. Working at night, they use a mixture of Elmer's glue and water to attach the photocopied images. The secret to a successful poster, they say, is to make sure that both sides of the paper are brushed with the glue mixture--it makes it that much harder to remove. They claim wood, marble and glass are the most receptive surfaces. ACT UP Phoenix, with its more political agenda, uses the surprise attack. In Phoenix's best piece of performance art last year, ACT UP created a shock wave when members taped several hundred condoms to copies of the Arizona Republic. The group followed that with a barrage of stickers and posters, including their best-known image, the phrase "Silence = Death" under a pink triangle. In the process, they made ACT UP a household word here.

The art of the illegal poster has its roots in a wide variety of historical precedents. It's akin to graffiti in its immediacy and directness, but it draws heavily on the language of politics and the images of social reform. Around 1850, the development of the high-speed printing press made cheap, quick printing and mass production possible. The new technique resulted in an onslaught of posters, and it was only a matter of time before they were used to speak out against the ruling powers. Often, these attacks took the form of printed broadsheets, but several artists, particularly those in the Russian avant-garde, combined visual design with print to foment revolution.

Illegal posters have been a part of almost every social and political uprising since. From the Communist revolution to the Vietnam War, posters have served as visual cries for reform. They have allowed access to the public when all other media sources are closed.

The best of the posters in Phoenix are both funny and painfully to the point. Unlike most of the public art in Phoenix, they offer some kind of challenge. They make you think. You can't walk by them and not feel something--at the least, a little peeved. But maybe what makes them the best public art in Phoenix is the lack of competition.

Public art in Phoenix can be broken into two schools of thought. The first could be called "Generic Abstraction," of which two fine examples grace the corners of Washington and Jefferson at Seventh Street. This school specializes in meaningless and bland abstract forms, knockoffs of other generic art that have then been reconstituted. The benefit of these sculptures is that they're always painted to match the decor.

The second school of thought, "Wild West Nostalgia," is more widespread, and even has its own subschool, the "Scottsdale Horse." You can see this stuff everywhere you turn. Phoenix Plaza at Thomas and Central has its humble, Pillsbury-doughboy Native American submissively reclining. The Esplanade has wild rams stuck on some rocks. The Greyhound-Dial Corporate Center has six kids (who look like they're escaping the ravages of Hell) running in the wind.

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