Visual Arts


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.

The horse is the Scottsdale staple. This school of art is much more insidious. It anesthetizes the emotions while it puts you into an aesthetic and intellectual coma. It revels in the past, even when that past is falsified. It's art that crams the myth of the West right down your throat.

Where corporate public art in Phoenix celebrates sentimental tripe and meaninglessness, the posters along Central address issues such as AIDS, the Gulf War, state government, abortion and censorship with a sureness and a succinctness that put their big bronze brothers to shame. By dealing with topical issues, the posters offer the option of participation, to agree or disagree.

They also allow their messages to dictate their form. The posters don't fit neatly into schools, even when the same group is responsible for them. Except for the moniker, each poster by ACT UP or Partnership for a Thought-Free Amerika is distinct in both format and design.

Besides their originality and topicality, the posters have other things going for them--timing, and their ability to saturate a given area. By appearing overnight, in the most prominent of places, and by appearing in multiples, these artworks don't allow much room for escape.

ACT UP's posters are a study in sensory overkill. During the Fiesta Bowl parade, they were everywhere along Central. Even now, if you work along Central, they greet you at the bus stop, at the newsstand, at your office, at your favorite lunch-time hangout. And more-limited-venue posters like "Fart for Peace" can make you slam on the brakes or do a double take as they pop into your peripheral vision.

What's perhaps most exciting about the Central Avenue posters is that they give you art directly and simply, without all the hoopla, without all the clues that let you know you're about to have an art experience. These things aren't served at a wine-and-cheese party with long-legged women in short black dresses and bespectacled men in itchy black turtlenecks. There aren't any interpretive labels, and there aren't any prices to goggle at.

The posters don't have many aspirations to the traditional trappings of fine art. They don't want to last forever, hanging on the walls of a nouveau-riche bond trader, surrounded by a massive gilded frame. They don't care that they're going to fall apart. They take pleasure in their temporariness.

One of the artists who helped in the "Men Use Condoms" campaign reported seeing several anxious parents quickly steering their young children away from the posters during the Fiesta Bowl parade. But the reaction of the city and of most property owners seems to be one of grudging tolerance. Nobody has made too much of an effort to take the posters down or to make the posterers stop.

ACT UP got a call from the city, asking it to stop putting posters on the new lighting fixtures because, "They're a hell of a mess to get off." That's about it.

But there's something obnoxious about these posters, even if they don't have the dangerous glamor of bulletins for the French Resistance during World War II. They say things we don't want to hear, in places we don't like, and they keep doing it over and over again like a clever kid that just won't shut up. They're like big, snotty stains on the social fabric of Phoenix. They express viewpoints that every one of us, at one time or another, would rather keep tucked away. They're art with an uncompromising voice, ready to attack the next issue head on. And they don't give a damn about being polite.

They may be the best public art available in Phoenix.

The benefit of these sculptures is that they're always painted to match the decor.

They don't want to last forever, hanging on the walls of a nouveau-riche bond trader, surrounded by a massive gilded frame.