Art in Action: A Further Look at Socially-Engaged Contemporary Artist Prints

The following is a guest post by exhibition co-curator Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division.

Writer James Baldwin observed that “An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian.” The Library of Congress exhibition Art in Action: Herblock and Fellow Artists Respond to Their Times explores the role of artists in reflecting history, culture, and society with powerful and moving immediacy, through visual artworks from Prints & Photographs Division collections. The exhibit pairs editorial cartoon drawings by Herbert Block, whose major, recurring subjects provide the show’s thematic framework, with artist prints, drawings, and posters dating from the 17th to 21st centuries. A previous blog post introduced images featured in the exhibition. Here we highlight, as an online bonus, further compelling examples of contemporary artists’ responses focusing on Civil Rights, Health, and the Environment.

Nonviolent Resistance
Produced for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., Holston’s cubist-style screenprint imagines King writing his 1963 letter defending “nonviolent direct action” after being jailed for his role in a series of sit-ins and protests against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Responding to local clergymen who opposed public demonstrations, King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Joseph Holston (b. 1944). Letter from Birmingham Jail, 2011. Screenprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © Joseph Holston, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55789

Joseph Holston (born 1944). Letter from Birmingham Jail, 2011. Screenprint. © Joseph Holston, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55789

Heroin Epidemic
At first glance, this image recalling Pennsylvania Dutch folk art is deceptively inviting with its bright colors and title that is a variation on the German word for “welcome.” A closer look reveals that the framing design is made of cadavers with toe tags. After the unexpected death of his brother from a heroin overdose in 2014, Pennsylvania artist Adam DelMarcelle has produced multimedia works, including street signs and light projections, intended to bring attention and resources to help battle the growing opioid health crisis.

Adam DelMarcelle (born 1977). Wilkum, 2016–2017. Screenprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © AdamDelMarcelle, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55798

Adam DelMarcelle (born 1977). Wilkum, 2016–2017. Screenprint. © AdamDelMarcelle, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55798

Genetic Lottery
Artist and AIDS activist Frank Moore created a body of artworks that merge visual poetry with science and issues related to health and the environment. In an image that recalls iconography from emblem books and tarot cards, a hand emerges from a cloud—signifying divine power— holding cards marked with the names and structures of DNA nucleotides. Nearby are poker chips and an ashtray with a cigarette from which smoke rises in the shape of a double helix.

Frank Moore (1953–2002). The Gambler from Vital Signs portfolio, 1997. Drypoint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © The Gesso Foundation. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55797

Frank Moore (1953–2002). The Gambler from Vital Signs portfolio, 1997. Drypoint. © The Gesso Foundation. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.55797

Mother Earth
Brooklyn-based artist Jess X Snow is a member of the Justseeds and Amplifier artist collectives, which deploy visual art to advocate for social change and political engagement. Her poster was selected from some 5,000 designs submitted in response to Amplifier’s public call for art in January 2017, and was one of 100 subsequently included in the nationally touring exhibition Hear Our Voice.

Jess X Snow (born 1992). Long Live Our 4 Billion Year Old Mother, 2017 . Inkjet. Published by Amplifier. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © Jess X Snow. Courtesy of Amplifier, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppss.00983

Jess X Snow (born 1992). Long Live Our 4 Billion Year Old Mother, 2017. Inkjet. Published by Amplifier. © Jess X Snow. Courtesy of Amplifier, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppss.00983

Toward Common Ground
Relying on elegantly simple graphic design elements and minimal wording, this poster encourages bipartisan support for addressing climate change. Brooklyn-based artist Josh MacPhee designed the poster for the 2017 Climate and Science Marches, where printed copies were distributed to marchers in Washington, D.C., and other participating cities. The image was printed on both sides for maximum viewing.

Josh MacPhee (b. 1973). No Sides in Climate. Los Angeles: Amplify, 2017. Inkjet. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © Josh MacPhee. Courtesy of Amplifier, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppss.00987

Josh MacPhee (born 1973). No Sides in Climate. Los Angeles: Amplify, 2017. Inkjet. Courtesy of Amplifier, used by permission. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppss.00987

The Art in Action exhibition features thirty-nine further examples of socially-engaged artworks by Herblock and twenty-five other artists commenting on civil rights, gender and women’s rights, health, environment, the impact of war, refugees, education, and the role of media. We invite you to visit in person in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building (through August 17, 2019), or have a look online. On-site gallery talks and programs highlight aspects of the exhibition; an interview with one of the featured artists, Helen Zughaib, is on tap for this week and will be available as a video on the web site soon.

Learn More:

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