The question “What do I think of when I think of blackness?” inspired Carl Pope Jr.’s monumental letterpress poster installation, The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, on view in the exhibition Who RU2 Day: Mass Media and the Fine Art Print. A recent acquisition, the work posits replies to this question by juxtaposing dozens of text-based posters in what the artist has described as an ongoing graphic essay about the presence and function of blackness in society. The answers come from a range of sources, including modern black literature, René Descartes, jazz and rap music, Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud, movies, and television. Although Pope draws deeply on African American culture, the blackness he charts is, in his words, “not only a hue associated with Africa, its population, and the African Diaspora,” but an alternative way of comprehending the world from a space of otherness, encompassing all that is commonly unseen, unknown, forgotten, repressed, or rejected. Playfully contrasting fonts and colors, Pope gives rhythm and texture to his sources as he transposes them into the vernacular of the letterpress medium, a commercial printing method traditionally used for advertisements, handbills, and picket signs. Unframed and stapled to the wall, the posters, like Pope’s concept of blackness, resist categorization, equivocating between fine art prints and public notices.
Pope’s installation is one of the 13 contemporary works on paper in the exhibition. The artists on view exploit print and photographic methods in ways that expose mass media as a manufactured experience, while examining its role in the formation of societal and personal identities. They also test notions of high art, rejecting traditional fine printmaking techniques or using them to reproduce the look and feel of mass media—revealing a blurry line between art and information, fact and fiction.
Pope is not alone in challenging prevailing ideologies. Several artists in the exhibition juxtapose miscellaneous texts and images as a way to question how history and culture are framed and who does the framing. In Les Aventures des Cannibales Modernistes (The Adventures of the Modernist Cannibals), Enrique Chagoya layers comic book imagery, European engravings and woodcuts, Mayan and Aztec symbols, ethnic stereotypes, and references to Modernist painting in order to suggest that dominant civilizations cannibalize the cultures of those they conquer. Modeling the work on the format of a pre-Hispanic Mayan codex, Chagoya imagines a “reverse anthropology,” an alternate, nonlinear history in which Latin American stereotypes assume dominant roles and subjugate the politics and art of Europe and the United States.
Chagoya combines woodcut and color lithography on handmade papel de amate (bark paper typical of Mayan codices) that has been carefully joined so the pages unfold like an accordion and are read from right to left. On one of the pages, the Mexican comic book heroine Adelita wallops Superman. The backdrop of their battle is a page from an astronomical almanac in the Dresden Codex, one of only a few Mayan books to survive the Spanish conquest. While the superheroes fight, a cartoon astronaut based on Mexican singer and movie star Jorge Negrete strides onto the next page to shoot killer bees at French Resistance soldiers.
Experimental photographer Robert Heinecken takes a different approach in his exploration of connections between mass media and culture. Each image in his portfolios Are You Rea and Recto/Verso was created by meshing the front and back of a single magazine page, an effect he recorded photographically by shining light through the magazine’s thin paper while it was in contact with a light-sensitive medium. The intermingled images and texts generate unforeseen combinations that Heinecken found to be ironic or socially significant. Derived from 1960s news and political magazines, the black-and-white images from Are You Rea reveal an intersection of politics, power, and defined gender roles. The glossy color images from Recto/Verso underscore a campaign of vanity and sex in fashion magazines aimed at women during the 1980s, a heyday of commercial-driven mass consumerism.
Heinecken was fascinated by mass media’s visual and textual strategies, but he was also wary of the ways those strategies could manipulate people’s perceptions of themselves and the world. In its own way, each work in this exhibition takes up a similar theme, challenging us to be alert viewers and readers, to consider different perspectives, and to contemplate how mass media may shape our answers to the question Who RU2 Day?