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Propaganda artists give Uncle Sam a makeover

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Uncle Sam, the recruiter, glares out like an eagle.

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"I Want You" blares from the poster. Printed under his pointed finger and stern-looking face, the message conveys a powerful command - especially to the potential doughboys who stood before James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 poster.

Some 50 years later, the icon looks battered and bandaged, telling Vietnam-era Americans, "I Want Out."

Today, in a contemporary poster by artist Micah Wright, Sam flexes his muscles, bares his teeth, and clenches a wrench over a caption that reads, "Ashcroft, you're next! Break Our Constitution, I Break Your Face."

The influence of such icons is on display in the exhibit, "American Propaganda Posters," at the Chisholm Gallery in downtown Manhattan. It celebrates a tradition of wartime propaganda in a provocative collection of posters that spans nearly a century.

From World War I to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Uncle Sam remains a powerful symbol for artists as part of a wartime tradition - propaganda. Sometimes words aren't even needed.

For decades, America's famous uncle has cajoled, enraged, and inspired. But instead of seeing poster propaganda in post offices and on government buildings, today it's primarily on the Internet and college campuses. Antiwar artists are reusing old images and stamping them with modern phrases like "No Blood for Oil."

Largely abandoned by the government after World War II, this classic medium is getting a second wind, thanks to modern technology. Hundreds of websites offer free downloads of contemporary propaganda and market the colorful images on everything from underwear to mugs.

The Chisholm exhibit makes one thing clear - poster propaganda has never been more cutting edge. "This one just makes my heart stop," says gallery owner Gail Chisholm, gazing at "I Want Out." "These posters are glimpses into social history." Chisholm says the power of this "seven-second medium" lies in its immediacy.

Drawing on tradition

Though originally used by the government as a method of rallying the public and publicizing messages, poster propaganda was abandoned in favor of radio and television after World War II, only to be picked up by antiwar groups during Vietnam.

Today, the most recognized symbol used by the US military is the yellow ribbon.

"[The poster] was no longer an effective means of mass communication for the American government," explains Fredric Smoler, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who spoke at the exhibition's opening March 26.

"But it works for protesters. They can draw on the tradition of these images." Mr. Wright, who designed most of the contemporary posters at Chisholm's exhibit, agrees.

Wright uses images from old government-issued posters and adds contemporary slogans in a process called remixing.

"Using old images adds a sense of irony," says the former soldier. Wright became angry when he saw Sept. 11 being used online in what he calls government propaganda. The artist decided to fight with his brush, and began designing remixes for www.antiwarposters.com.

"Those images were just so earnest," says Wright of the posters. "Reusing them undercuts the mom-and-pop wholesomeness that the George Bush administration is so intent on bringing back to America."

Wright points to a remix he designed of a World War II poster in which a wicked-looking Japanese soldier's head rises over the horizon beside a bayonet. The caption reads, "He's Watching You."

Wright has changed the bayonet to a cross and the caption to: "John Ashcroft's Watching You." These images hang beside each other in the exhibition.

Artist flexes political views

One of Wright's most controversial posters was a remix of the famous image of Rosie the Riveter flexing her biceps.

Originally meant to encourage American women to go to work while the men were fighting in World War II, Wright has changed the caption so that Rosie is now for abortion rights. The shock and humor evoked by the piece are a hallmark of contemporary propaganda.

Propaganda artist Kat Kinsman, says that such humor is essential to making people reconsider their views. "These images are hyperbolic," she admits. "But I tend to think that if you can get people laughing, you can get them thinking."

Despite what it reveals on a political level, Chisholm's exhibit is, above all, historical. Chisholm says she picked posters from a range of subjects such as planting victory gardens, purchasing war bonds, and keeping quiet about when ships were sailing from American harbors.

Many of the people at the gallery say they remember the images such as that of a rattlesnake about to strike, with the caption: "Less Dangerous Than Careless Talk."

"There were spies in New York," said one visitor, gesturing to the poster. "I remember. There were German bars on 86th Street, and you really did have to keep quiet."

"That's what's meant to happen," says Chisholm, smiling. "It isn't supposed to just be political. These are windows into the past and windows into the present."

Wright agrees. The posters, he says, are not just political; they are worth seeing for their beauty. "These artists, like Flagg, were at the peak of their abilities."

Back at the gallery, visitors peruse the posters, trade memories, and discuss the different images. "It's amazing how modern these images are," says one guest, looking at Seymour Chwast's 1967 depiction of a green-faced Uncle Sam with planes bombing houses inside his mouth. The caption underneath reads "End Bad Breath." "That could be for Iraq," she says.

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