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SLO Library's Sign of the Times exhibit takes viewers on an artistic journey through our country's political history



Election season is just around the corner, but a new exhibit at San Luis Obispo Library is focused on candidates of the past rather than those on the 2020 debate stage.

Sign of the Times: The Great American Political Poster 1844-2012 is a traveling exhibit created by ExhibitsUSA that will be on display at the SLO Library until Jan. 19. Featuring more than 40 political posters dating from 1844 all the way up to the election of former President Barack Obama, the collection is more than a sampling of political statements—it's a slice of art history, according to Sharon Coronado, the organizer of the exhibit and coordinating librarian for adult services at the SLO Library.

"It doesn't matter what political party you're affiliated with or what you know about presidents from the past, but the political posters are a visual medium," Coronado told New Times. "There have been some famous artists, like [Roy] Lichtenstein, who have done posters. I think they're trying to showcase the poster as art, in addition to all the politics involved."

For Coronado, some of the most fascinating posters are those of candidates who never made it past the primaries, whose names might otherwise be forgotten with time.

"The ones from the late 1800s, those that aren't household names necessarily, especially the ones who didn't win—there's a lot going on in those older posters, so you really have to look at it to see the whole story," she said. "You may be really involved in politics right now one way or the other, given the climate that we're in with the impeachment inquiry and everything going on.

"I think we tend to forget the previous players in the political spectrum ... and we don't hear about every candidate who's ever run," Coronado said.

One poster that stands out, she said, depicts an octopus whose tentacles are being cut off by Lady Liberty. The symbolic nature of the poster positions Lady Liberty as justice, while the octopus represents truth, Coronado explained.

"It's not just, 'Vote for so-and-so,'" she said. "There are a lot of issues being covered in the background."

Other notable posters include an Obama poster created by Native American Ryan T. Red Corn. The graphic design artist grew up on the Osage National Reservation in Oklahoma, and his poster displayed at the SLO Library was selected by the Smithsonian for its 2008 Inaugural Festival when Obama was sworn in. The orange-, red-, and yellow-toned poster shows a graphic rendering of Obama with the simple text, "Native Vote 2008."

It represents "a moment when Native Americans were coordinating themselves to have a political voice," Coronado said of the poster.

SIMPLE BUT EFFECTIVE This 1960 Kennedy-Johnson poster made by an unidentified artist captures a simple and straightforward style of poster-making that centers on the faces of the candidates rather than symbolic messaging. - PHOTO COURTESY OF EXHIBITSUSA
  • Photo Courtesy Of ExhibitsUSA
  • SIMPLE BUT EFFECTIVE This 1960 Kennedy-Johnson poster made by an unidentified artist captures a simple and straightforward style of poster-making that centers on the faces of the candidates rather than symbolic messaging.

While some posters, especially older ones, take a more complicated approach with multiple symbols, overlapping images, and intricate fonts, the modern posters tend to have a simple and straightforward approach that often focuses on the faces of the candidates.

A John F. Kennedy poster features red, white, and blue horizontal bands. The top of the poster displays white-bolded font with a simple "Kennedy for President" message. The bottom reads "Johnson for Vice President." The middle features Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson's smiling faces in grayscale. The result is basic, but effective.

Another poster that takes the straightforward approach is one of George W. Bush.

"It's really simple. It has his face and the 'W' and then the year," Coronado said.

Other posters reflect the demographic that their candidates appealed to.

"[George] McGovern has four [posters at the SLO Library exhibit]," Coronado said. "There were a lot of musicians who turned out in support of McGovern, and so they almost look like concert posters."

Coronado said some older posters are also a testament to how intellectual property laws have changed over time.

"For me as a librarian, some of what I focus on is trademarks and patents," she said. "There's a Nixon poster that totally appropriated the artwork of [Robert] Crumb. If you did that now, you would get a cease and desist letter."

The fact that the exhibit spans such a long stretch of political history allows the viewer to witness these changes in one place, from the style of the posters to the increased involvement of certain American demographics. And hosting this unique collection at a venue like the SLO Library, Coronado said, shapes the viewing experience.

"You walk into the library, maybe to pick up your [book] hold, and now you've got over 40 posters to look at, [spanning] over 100 years," she said. "You can get a glimpse of some of the other major players that all stand on one another's shoulders. Civilization is built from this process of one president doing something and the next doing something. You pop into the library and you can see that history, and it's there for you to comment on." Δ

Arts Writer Malea Martin is ready to cast her vote. Send arts story tips to


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