Category: Prints - Posters

“The Gaze”: Silkscreen Print

The Gaze - Silkscreen print by Mark Vallen ©The Gaze” - Black & White serigraphic print. 1980
(c) Mark Vallen. Hand pulled by the artist
Dimensions: 17.5″ x 23″ inches
Signed and numbered by the artist
Edition of 16
Signed and number copies of this print can be purchased here

I created this silkscreen portrait print of a young woman in 1980. During that period I was doing quite a lot of work in serigraphy, generally making prints of a political nature. As evidenced in the above, I was also interested in creating works of a more personal disposition. Though trained in modern methods of silkscreen printing, I never liked transferring photographic images onto a screen using chemicals and emulsions or even by means of laboriously cutting paper or film stencils. I have always enjoyed a “hands on” approach to serigraphy; drawing directly on the screen so that the gesture of drawing becomes part of the print.

Because of that preference, I developed a method of drawing directly onto the screen using oil-based lithographer’s pencils and crayons, complemented by painting lithographer’s touche onto the screen with a brush as if I were painting a canvas. Once dried I then flooding the screen with water-based glue. The “stencils” produced bore results akin to lithographic techniques, allowing for great spontaneity, subtle gradations in tone, remarkable textures, and best of all - since one could never fully control the medium - finished prints that were full of surprise and “the artist’s hand”.

While I did create prints in color, I had, and still have, a preference for prints in black and white, which on the whole I feel are more enigmatic and melancholy - which suits me fine. Some of my favorite silkscreen works from that period of experimentation were created by using the method I explained in the above. Of those prints I especially like The Gaze. Similar black and white serigraphic prints I created during those days will be available on this web log in months to come.


"MAY 1, UNITE" - Mark Vallen. 1980. © Silkscreen 11.5 x 17 inches. Printed in Day-Glo inks. Bourgeois - You Have Learned Nothing!

"MAY 1, UNITE" - Mark Vallen. 1980. © Silkscreen 11.5 x 17 inches. Printed in Day-Glo inks. Bourgeois - You Have Learned Nothing!

Limited edition, hand-signed prints of MAY 1, UNITE are available here.

I created my print as a celebration of International Workers Day, or May Day, which is observed annually around the world on May 1st. The origin of May Day has its roots in the American labor movement.

On May 1, 1886, workers in the U.S. mounted a general strike across the country in order to win the eight hour day. On May 4, 1886, at a striking workers demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, an unidentified assailant tossed a bomb at police who were attempting to clear the square; in response police fired directly into the crowd. When the smoke cleared, four workers were dead and some seventy were wounded, while seven police officers had been killed. Many in the worker’s movement suspected that agent provocateurs were behind the bombing.

State authorities reacted by attempting to break the back of the labor movement, raiding its meeting halls and arresting dozens of its leaders. Eventually eight anarchist activists were charged with the bombing and a kangaroo court found all of them guilty as charged. On November 11, 1887, four of the defendants were taken to the gallows and put to death. One of them, August Spies, yelled out just prior to his hanging, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!”

Peace Press Graphics: 1984

In August of this year I announced that a number of my early graphic works would be included in the museum exhibition, Peace Press Graphics 1967-1987: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, at the University Art Museum at California State University Long Beach (CSULB). The exhibit is an important showing of over 100 historic posters and flyers published by Peace Press, a Los Angeles collective that once ran a professional print shop serving the local and national needs of activist political groups and organizations. The exhibit will close Dec. 11, 2011, and because of its relevance to current events I wanted to bring attention to the history of one of my exhibited artworks - a flyer titled 1984.

"1984" - Mark Vallen ©. 1984. Offset flyer. Used to publicized the Anti-War Art Exhibition held during the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

"1984" - Mark Vallen ©. 1984. Offset flyer. Used to publicized the Anti-War Art Exhibition held during the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

The 1984 flyer publicized the Anti-War Art Exhibition, an art show I curated at a venue in Venice, California with assistance from Shock Battalion, the now defunct 80s era arts activist collective I founded during that period. From July 27 to August 13, 1984, the exhibit displayed contemporary and past anti-war art from around the globe; drawings by Japanese atom bomb survivors (hibakusha), children’s art from the war zones of El Salvador, reproductions of the photomontage works of John Heartfield, works from local southern California artists, and so much more. 1984 was one of nine separate flyers I created to publicize the exhibition, all of which are in the Peace Press Graphics exhibit catalog, and five of which are on display at the University Art Museum.

"1984" - Mark Vallen ©. 1983. Detail.

"1984" - Mark Vallen ©. 1983. Detail.

The Anti-War Art Exhibition was ultimately attended by thousands, but to date, has not yet been properly documented.  I will someday write lengthily about the exhibit, but for now all that remains in the public record are the flyers.

The Anti-War Art Exhibition was intentionally timed to coincide with the highly politicized 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, which had become a victim of Cold War insanity; in fact the show’s alternative title was the Pre-World War 3 Art Exhibit.

In the blackened right-hand margin of the exhibit announcement flyer, I quoted the Los Angeles Times from Aug. 13, 1984; “LAOC (Olympic Committee) officials have said privately that some police chiefs have wanted to prepare not for an Olympics but for, as one put it, World War III”.

In 1980 U.S. President Jimmy Carter barred U.S. athletes from attending the Moscow Summer Olympics because of the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan; the U.S. led a boycott of some sixty countries that refused to participate in the Moscow games.

In 1984 the Soviets retaliated by leading an international boycott of the Los Angeles Olympiad, charging the Reagan administration with using the games “for political purposes”, of “stirring up anti-Soviet propaganda”, and of taking a “cavalier attitude” concerning the security of Soviet athletes in the U.S.

Some fourteen countries joined the Soviets in boycotting the L.A. games. The Reagan White House hit back with heated condemnations of the USSR for its “barbarous behavior” in Afghanistan; an immense irony considering the U.S. has waged a bloody and costly war of occupation in Afghanistan since 2001.

But the artwork my 1984 flyer was based on had been circulating in Los Angeles a good seven-months before the Anti-War Art Exhibition. Created in late 1983, my artwork was initially a 29 x 21 inch pencil drawing I then reworked into a black and white silkscreen print to be posted on city streets. Around 200 silkscreen posters were published and distributed around L.A. on the eve of 1984.

"1984" - Mark Vallen ©. 1983. Silkscreen print. 29 x 21 inches.

"1984" - Mark Vallen ©. 1983. Silkscreen print. 29 x 21 inches.

Of course the title of my artwork came from George Orwell’s novel concerning a dystopian society ruled through propaganda, fear, and raw police power. Having first read the book as a 15-year-old in 1968, it did much to shape my political philosophy, and when the actual year rolled around I felt compelled - given the miserable state of the world - to create an artwork that would facetiously “celebrate” our own entry into a nightmare social order.

I am now offering a handful of these rare 1984 silkscreen prints that I had long ago set aside in my archives. The 29 x 21 inch prints have not been seen since I first distributed them in 1984, and the prints have never been available for sale. Intended as throw away street posters, the prints are imperfect and roughly printed but otherwise in perfect condition.

LA Punk ‘79: The Lost Linoleum Print - Pat Bag

"Pat Bag" - Mark Vallen. 1979. Original hand-pulled Linoleum cut print. Edition of 12

"Pat Bag" - Mark Vallen. 1979. Original hand-pulled Linoleum cut print. Edition of 12.

In early 1979 I carved a linoleum block portrait of Pat Bag, the enchantingly sinister-looking bass player for The Bags, one of the first and most notorious late 70s punk rock bands in Los Angeles. At their earliest performances band members wore bags over their heads, and each was assured anonymity by taking “Bag” as a last name. It was in ‘79 that the band posed for me; soon after Pat left the group and began performing under her own name, Patricia Morrison. She eventually ended up joining The Damned, the first U.K. punk band to have recorded a single, an album, and to have toured the United States. I remember their 1977 visit to my home city of Los Angeles helped ignite the L.A. punk scene, so it was fitting that in 1996 Morrison married The Damned’s lead singer, Dave Vanian.

At the Josephine Press atelier, master printer John Greco prepares the "Pat Bag" linoleum block for printing by applying ink with a brayer roller. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

At the Josephine Press atelier, master printer John Greco prepares the "Pat Bag" linoleum block for printing by applying ink with a brayer roller. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I hand-pulled a single trial proof of my “Pat Bag” print and was pleased with the results, but I never pulled a full edition of prints; the linoleum block has been in storage since 1979 - until now.

Late last year I worked with master printer John Greco of Josephine Press in Santa Monica, California, to finally publish the suite of prints that should have been issued in ‘79.

Each print in the edition was hand-pulled by master-printer John Greco on beautiful heavy white paper (acid free) using Dan Smith traditional relief ink; all prints are embossed in the lower right corner with the Josephine Press logo. Adhering to the time-honored practice in traditional printmaking, a final “cancellation print” was made after I cut a large “X” cut through the linoleum block - signifying the edition is closed and no further prints can be published from the block.

The inking completed, Greco inspects the block. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

The inking completed, Greco inspects the block. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

You can purchase the Pat Bag linoleum block print directly here, or if you live in the Los Angeles area, you can visit the José Vera Fine Art gallery in the historic Eagle Rock neighborhood and purchase the print there. I am pleased to be working with José Vera, as the gallery offers an amazing selection of prints from some of my favorite artists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Miguel Covarrubias, and Leopoldo Méndez to name but a few.

Greco turns the wheel of his large American French intaglio press to print the block. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Greco turns the wheel of his large American French intaglio press to print the block. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

In all likelihood “Pat Bag” is the only linoleum cut portrait of a punk rocker to have been created anywhere in the world as punk was actually unfolding.

As an active participant in the punk rock explosion that rocked L.A. and the world in 1977, I was one of the few artists to document the chaotic scene as it happened through a series of drawings and paintings.

It all reminded me of the German Cabaret phenomenon of the Weimar Republic (1918-33), just before the last vestiges of liberal democracy were torn apart by the ultra-right.

Greco reveals the very first print to come off the press. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Greco reveals the very first print to come off the press. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Having worked with John Greco in the past to create and publish my original lithographs, America Novia Mia (My Beloved America) and El Salvador Presente (El Salvador is Present), I wanted Josephine Press to print my old linoleum block of Pat Bag.

Unfortunately the block had been improperly stored, causing some minor warpage; in addition the linoleum had become fragile in places, requiring some restorative work and minor recutting. Due to the unstable condition of the old linoleum block, Greco and I decided a small print run was the only viable option, hence the edition of only twelve prints.

Owing to his immeasurable experience in all facets of printmaking, and his remarkable dedication to craft, Greco managed to pull a beautiful edition of prints that I am quite proud of.

As Greco re-inks the linoleum block for printing, wet prints "hot off the press" can be seen drying in the foreground. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

As Greco re-inks the linoleum block for printing, wet prints "hot off the press" can be seen drying in the foreground. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Greco used a 36″ x 60″ American French intaglio press to print my linoleum block.

The heavy press, with its colossal steel and aluminum frame, solid steel roll, and elegant oversized star wheel, is considered the world’s finest press for printing etchings, monotypes, collographs, wood blocks, and linoleum blocks.

Greco calls it his “Cadillac.” In fact, it is so large that when he first acquired it decades ago, he had to cut a large opening in his studio wall in order to bring the press into his workshop.

Entering the Josephine Press atelier is like crossing into another era, where printmaking skills never fell victim to the whims of today’s postmodern fashions. In Greco’s workshop time-honored skills and techniques are perennial; I can imagine some of my favorite printmakers - Rembrandt, Goya, Edvard Munch, Käthe Kollwitz, - working diligently today in some quiet corner of Greco’s studio. Nevertheless, Greco does possess a 21st century vision for printmaking. He coined the term “tradigital” to describe his innovative print techniques combining traditional methods like woodcuts and etchings with archival digital printing. In the near future I will be working with Greco in producing a new series of etchings as well as linoleum and woodblock prints.

Patrick Merrill - R.I.P. 1948-2010

"Laius" - Patrick Merrill. 2001. First panel of diptych. 60"x 30" Woodcut, copper foil intaglio, and collograph. On view at "Patrick Merrill Conjunction: Intaglio and Relief."

"Laius" - Patrick Merrill. 2001. First panel of diptych. 60"x 30" Woodcut, copper foil intaglio, and collograph. On view at "Patrick Merrill Conjunction: Intaglio and Relief."

I first met Patrick Merrill when we exhibited together in a group show in 2005. Conflict: Works on Paper was the thirty-fourth annual juried competition at the Brand Gallery in Glendale California, and Patrick and I both submitted works that lived up to the theme of “conflict.” I had entered two large drawings having to do with the U.S. waging war in Central America and Iraq, and Merrill entered his monumental woodcut, 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, War, Death, Pestilence. Our works caused quite a stir, and the two of us won the exhibit’s top prizes. Later in February of 2006 Patrick and I exhibited together in another group show, The New Normalcy: Artists Examine the Post 9-11 World, an antiwar exhibition at the former Carlotta’s Passion Fine Arts gallery of Los Angeles.

Needless to say, Merrill and I had much in common, but the one mutual interest we shared with great enthusiasm was our love of printmaking - and Merrill was a master printmaker. I was saddened to hear that Patrick Merrill succumbed to colon cancer on August 31st 2010.  One of his many distinctions was being the Director and Curator of the Kellogg University Art Gallery at California Polytechnic University Pomona, and since he contributed much to the cultural life of Pomona, his passing was fittingly noted in a salient obituary published in Pomona’s Art Colonists.

"Oedipus" - Patrick Merrill. 2001. Second panel of diptych. 60"x 30" Woodcut, copper foil intaglio, and collograph.

"Oedipus" - Patrick Merrill. 2001. Second panel of diptych. 60"x 30" Woodcut, copper foil intaglio, and collograph.

I was recently contacted by Merrill’s wife, Debra R. Winters, who informed me that a memorial will be held for her late husband on Saturday, October 30, 2010, at 2:00 p.m. at the Begovich Art Gallery at California State University Fullerton. The ceremony will be held in conjunction with the Begovich Gallery’s exhibit, Patrick Merrill: revelation, a solo showing of the artist’s print works which will include his woodcut 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The exhibit will also début the artist’s final monumental diptych woodcut print, Alpha and Omega, completed just one week before Merrill’s death. In addition, the exhibit will present Ecce Homo, the artist’s 10 x 6 ft combination woodcut and etching. A panel discussion on the life and works of Merrill will be held at 4:30 p.m., with the public opening for the exhibit running from 5 to 8 p.m.

A separate exhibit of Merrill’s print works will be held at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California. Patrick Merrill Conjunction: Intaglio and Relief, will focus on the color prints Merrill created over the past 30 years. According to Ms. Winters, this collection of prints is “more psychological than political,” with the works being “inspired by his recovery from substance addiction and his struggle to understand systems of domination and hierarchy.” No doubt, those who attend the exhibit will be electrified by the technical mastery of Merrill’s intaglio and relief print works. Not to be missed is the artist’s large scale woodcut intaglio diptych, Laius and Oedipus, a contemporary retelling of the Greek mythological figure Oedipus, who fulfilled a prophecy that said he would marry his mother and slay his father, King Laius.

I highly recommend that one and all attend the aforementioned exhibits. In the near future I hope to update this post with other prints created by Merrill.

The Madonna of the Napalm

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

Back on December 1, 2009 I wrote an illustrated article titled Hey, Hey, LBJ…, an essay concerning U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson as depicted in anti-Vietnam war posters from the 1960s. I self-published my treatise on the occasion of President Obama deploying 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan.

While there are obvious differences between the Vietnam and Afghan wars, the parallels are striking. This article revisits the historic posters of the 60s that excoriated President Johnson for escalating the war in Southeast Asia, by examining a specific silkscreen print not included in Hey, Hey, LBJ…, - Martin Sharp’s The Madonna of the Napalm.

Sharp’s poster was created in 1967, and it is a good example of how the alternative culture of the 60s meshed with the antiwar activism of the period, however, an evaluation of the poster brings up unavoidable questions regarding the present day U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm is a biting condemnation, not just of military conflict, but of third world dictators, the compromised political leaders of Western democracies, religious piety distorted by fanaticism, and the overall decrepitude of “liberal” society rendered insane by imperialist war. We have not seen the likes of this poster since the late 1960s, but given the painful similarity between Obama’s Afghan catastrophe and Johnson’s Vietnam disaster, we ought to see such posters proliferate in the near future.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

To start with, Sharp’s poster is a gem when it comes to psychedelia. His acerbic but fanciful caricatures were drawn with detailed though fluid pen lines, and when combined with vibrant fluorescent orange and black ink, an eye-popping visual was achieved. Moreover, Sharp’s semi-Gothic, neo-Art Nouveau style was the very epitome of psychedelic aesthetics.

One can only imagine the excitement his poster generated when viewed under the “black light” displays that were so popular during the sixties. But this was not simply another day-glo poster from the Aquarian Age, it was an angry political diatribe against the centers of power and fully intended to help incapacitate the war machine. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm represents a sub-genre rarely mentioned in modern-day coffee-table books dealing with psychedelic prints from the sixties - that of the political protest poster.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

The central character in the poster is a depiction of President Johnson as an ancient Byzantine Madonna figure, but there is nothing sacred about this icon, who wears an imposing radiating nimbus made from rifles.

Floating in the heavens behind this demonic sham Madonna are skull-faced, black-winged angels of death. The unholy mother of war clutches a mortar shell in one claw, and a deformed puppet general in the other.

The general, with a glowing halo made from the U.S. flag, is none other than the U.S. backed Nguyen Cao Kỳ, who served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and then served as the Vice President until he retired in 1971. Kỳ originally received military training from the French army, who founded the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) to help assist in their colonial control of “French Indochina.” Kỳ served the French well, but in 1954 when they finally departed Vietnam in military defeat, the VNA was reorganized into the American supplied and controlled “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” (ARVN).

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

The background of Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm presents some interesting character studies. At bottom left one can see Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and LBJ, and a primary architect of the U.S. war on Vietnam.

Starting out with the firm belief that the U.S. could win the war militarily, by May 1967 McNamara informed LBJ that the war was “becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates - causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North.” Six months later LBJ would remove McNamara from his post.

Contrast McNamara’s remarks to those made in May of 2010 by Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said; “We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely, in fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”

An anthropomorphized kangaroo figure holding a boomerang is depicted in the upper left corner of the poster; the caricature is of John Gorton, the pro-Vietnam war Prime Minister of Australia who governed from January 1968 to March 1971. Under Gorton’s administration around 8,000 Australian soldiers assisted the U.S. by fighting in Vietnam, but Australian public opinion turned against the war - hence the boomerang.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The pro-war Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

On May 1, 1970, over 200,000 people gathered in Melbourne, Australia for a mass protest dubbed the “Vietnam War Moratorium March.” Eventually some 50,000 Australian soldiers would be rotated into the war, around 3,000 would be wounded, and nearly 600 were killed. The last Australian soldiers would finally be withdrawn from Vietnam in 1972.

Since I first published Hey, Hey, LBJ…, on December 1, 2009, there have been numerous developments in Mr. Obama’s ever escalating war. In Dec. 2009 U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan stood at 947, as of this writing 364 U.S. soldiers have been added to that list, for a total of 1,317 killed.

As our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate President intensifies his war, those casualty rates are rising. There are now around 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan along with 52,000 allied NATO troops. The Afghan war is the longest in U.S. history, The ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan falls on October 7, 2010.

[The Madonna of the Napalm poster image was provided to me by Lincoln Cushing -]

Siqueiros: A Print Dialogue

For those unable to attend the September 18, 2010, panel discussion, A PRINT DIALOGUE: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, this web log will provide coverage of the event, including photos and a rush transcript of the proceedings. Readers can look forward to these updates in the days following the panel discussion. The image used in this short notice is the official public invitation postcard and poster being distributed for the event.

Invitation card to Siqueiros panel discussion

No Human Being is Illegal

 No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

My No Human Being is Illegal artwork was originally published as a bilingual poster in 1988.

The print helped to popularize the slogan, which has become a catchphrase of today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights.

To oppose the rising tide of discrimination aimed at the undocumented in the U.S., from Arizona’s racist SB1070 anti-immigrant law, to efforts by members of the U.S. Congress to overturn the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees citizenship to children born on U.S. soil), I republished my poster in August of 2010, and it is now once again available for distribution and purchase.

The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

My bilingual street poster was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the United States. In the 1980s Central America was convulsed by war, revolution, and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the United States, only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Despite well documented evidence that the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala were actively engaged in the extrajudicial killings of tens of thousands of civilians, the U.S. government denied political asylum to the overwhelming majority of Central Americans who applied for it. Less than 3% percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking asylum in the U.S. were granted that status in 1984.

No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Detail.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Detail.

Today, economic warfare is driving Mexican immigrants to the U.S. On January 1, 1994, the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada, signed the so-called “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty that has brought great wealth to financial elites while impoverishing workers in all three countries.

When U.S. manufacturing plants moved to Mexico, where low wages and weak environmental laws assured super profits for U.S. corporations, American workers lost millions of good paying industrial jobs that provided decent benefits. Furthermore, employers were able to drive down the wages of American workers, eliminate their benefits, and undo workplace protections, by threatening to move operations to Mexico. While big business continues to export American jobs to Mexico, Mexican workers earn no more than they did before the passage of NAFTA. This begs the question, if capital can move freely across borders, then why not workers?

Another important aspect to the NAFTA debacle is that Mexico is the birthplace of corn. Scientific evidence has established that teocintle - the forerunner of today’s corn - was first cultivated some 7,000 years ago in Central Mexico. Corn is interwoven into Mexico’s unique national character and distinctive history. Until just recently more than 60 percent of cultivated land in Mexico was planted with corn, and some 18 million Mexican campesinos made a living by growing it - that is, until NAFTA. Cheap corn produced by U.S. corporate agribusiness has been flooding Mexico, and millions of Mexican farmers, unable to compete with the imported tariff-free corn, have lost their farms and livelihood. This has caused serious economic and social dislocation within Mexico, and the crisis is one of the root causes for undocumented Mexican laborers entering the U.S. for work.

When running for president in 2008, Senator Obama won the support of large sectors of American workers by promising to renegotiate NAFTA. His supposed position was that the treaty “did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements.” His official campaign booklet, Blueprint for Change, declared that “Obama believes that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for the American workers.” After winning the presidency Mr. Obama has done nothing about NAFTA, but he has turned his eye to the U.S./Mexico border.

No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Detail.

"Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal" - Mark Vallen © Detail.

Senator Obama captured the Latino vote by promising to move towards implementing “comprehensive immigration reform” during his first year in office. As president, he announced to the press on April 28, 2010, that he was taking immigration reform off his agenda of major priorities, saying “I don’t want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn’t solve the problem.”

He went on to say, “If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming in, not playing by the rules, that’s a problem, and the federal government has been abdicating on its responsibilities for a very long time on this issue.” In a widely circulated news article by Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa, Obama made it clear that Democratic Congressional lawmakers lacked the “appetite” to deal with immigration reform while facing elections in November. Mr. Obama’s alleged immigration reform plans were dead in the water, and as Suzanne Gamboa put it - “sounding the death knell was Obama himself.”

On July 26, 2010, the Washington Post reported that “the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants.” The paper revealed that under Obama, deportations of the undocumented have gone up 25 percent higher than under the Bush administration. The paper went on to postulate that Obama was hoping “to entice Republicans” into supporting a yet to be formulated immigration reform plan. The increased deportations by Mr. Obama should not be viewed in isolation. Earlier this month he signed a $600 million dollar bill that pays for an extra 1,500 Border Patrol officers, agents that will supplement the president’s deployment of 1,200 U.S. National Guard soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border. Obama has sent the largest number of soldiers, 524, to the State of Arizona, where the racist anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070 took effect on July 29, 2010.

In a further militarization of the border, Obama has deployed unarmed “Predator drone” surveillance vehicles to the region; the same type of remote control aircraft the president routinely uses to conduct “targeted killings” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration states the drones are currently “able to cover the southwest border from the El Centro sector in California all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, providing critical aerial surveillance assistance to personal on the ground.” The Christian Science Monitor reported the White House will have six drones in operation along the border by the beginning of next year.

It is for all of the above reasons that I decided to reprint my No Human Being Is Illegal poster.

Levi Artists: Lay Down Your Brushes

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

I was startled when printmaker Doug Minkler of Berkeley, California informed me that Levi Strauss & Co., one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the world, was operating an art printmaking workshop in San Francisco.

Minkler, a longtime artist and social activist, was chagrined that the corporate leviathan was whitewashing its poor labor practices by “branding” itself a champion of working people - and using the arts to do so.

This story really begins in 2003, when Levi Strauss & Co. closed the last of its U.S. manufacturing plants, eliminating thousands of good paying jobs for American workers. The company has since moved its manufacturing operations to nations like Mexico, Haiti, Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia, where wages are extremely low and workers easily exploited.

Now, through the efforts of ad firms and PR agencies, Levi Strauss & Co. is promoting itself as a conglomerate that is “a catalyst for change,” and the free printmaking workshop in San Francisco has been part of the marketing campaign. On August 26, 2010, Doug Minkler published an open letter to the arts community titled, Lay Down Your Brushes, entreating artists to reconsider their relationship to Levi Strauss, and to corporate support of the arts in general. The text of Minkler’s dispatch follows:

“Levi Strauss & Co., Wal-Mart’s largest worldwide strategic partner, is just finishing a two-month long advertising event in San Francisco via their Levi’s Free Printing Workshop. Artists from as far as Sacramento and the East Bay have made their way to the workshop to be part of the giant Levi Strauss advertisement campaign. The colorful and talented artists are not printing Levi’s logos, rather, they are printing their own art work. Most of the artists, especially the activists, would never consider creating advertising for the corporate giant, but somehow they have been seduced into helping Levi Strauss.

Some justify their advertising support by working on projects that will benefit non profits, others claim they have not been duped because they are addressing social justice issues on Levi’s tab.  A Levi’s workshop exhibit of well known activist artists titled ‘Mission Icons In Time Of Change‘ emerged from the Free Print Workshop in order to raise much needed funds for Plaza Adelante, a Mission self-help center for lower and middle class Latino families. So, what could be wrong with artists and the community finally getting a piece of the corporate pie?  I fear a lot.

Artists who accepted the free printing are tacitly saying to both the Levi Strauss corporation and the public that ‘Levi Strauss can use us for cleansing their reputation - their exploitative corporate labor and marketing practices are okay with us. Give us free printing and we will help you sell jeans and a false benevolent image.’ Levi’s co-optation of the artists’ positive image is accomplished by masking corporate advertisement with the legitimizing appearance of involvement in social justice efforts.

In Levi’s cloaked sales campaign, artists are kept far removed from the crass tactics involved in sales, consequently, artists are lulled into thinking that they have not compromised their principles. For the corporation, it is a ‘win win’ situation, but for the non-commercial artist, the ‘For Sale’ jacket they now wear is a problem.

I believe a more critical look at Levi Strauss & Co. is in order before more artists enter into a casual (or not so casual) relationship with this corporate giant.

1.  Levi Strauss & Co. is a worldwide corporation organized into three geographic divisions:  Levi Strauss Americas (LSA), based in the San Francisco headquarters; Levi Strauss Europe, Middle East and Africa (LSEMA), based in Brussels; and Asia Pacific Division (APD), based in Singapore.

2.  By the 1990s, the Levi brand, facing competition from other brands and cheaper products from overseas, began accelerating the pace of its U.S. factory closures and its use of offshore subcontracting agreements.  In 1991, Levi Strauss faced a scandal involving six subsidiary factories on the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, where some 3% of Levi’s jeans sold annually with the Made in the U.S.A. label were shown to have been made by Chinese laborers under what the United States Department of Labor called ’slave like’ conditions.  Today, Levi jeans are made overseas.  Cited for sub-minimum wages, seven-day work weeks with 12-hour shifts, poor living conditions and other indignities, Tan Holdings Corporation, Levi Strauss’ Marianas subcontractor, was forced to pay what were then the largest fines in U.S. labor history, distributing more than $9 million in restitution to some 1,200 employees.

3.  The activist group Fuerza Unida (United Force) was formed following the January 1990 closure of a plant in San Antonio, Texas, in which 1,150 seamstresses (primarily Hispanic women), some of whom had worked for Levi Strauss for decades, saw their jobs exported to Costa Rica. During the mid and late 1990s, Fuerza Unida picketed the Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins in protest of the company’s labor policies (The above three historical facts about Levi Strauss were resourced from Wikipedia.)

If Levi’s labor practices are not enough reason for you to end your association with them, possibly their recent sexist, homophobic DOCKERS campaign encouraging men to ‘Wear the Pants‘ and welcoming people to ‘MAN Francisco’ will, or their ‘All Asses Are Not Created Equal‘ ad emphasizing variation in butt sizes but continuing to bombard women with images of the unattainable Barbie shape will, or perhaps their ever increasing sexualization of younger and younger girls via their skin tight low rider jeans will, or all of the above will.

In the 90’s, I taught printmaking in the mission at New College of California. One day my class was asked by the administration to create a poster for SF Poetry Week. The first question the students asked me was who were the sponsors? When I informed them that the sponsors were Levi Strauss, Nestle’s and New College, they not only refused the job, but produced protest posters against their college’s involvement. Next, they produced a series of posters that exposed Levi’s U.S. plant closures, their off-shore labor practices and Nestle’s deadly infant formula peddling. These images were either wheat-pasted in San Francisco or hung in the coffee shops in which the poetry events occurred. My refusal to stifle their anger and sense of justice eventually cost me my job.

I am not surprised by Levi’s latest marketing ploy. What I am surprised and disappointed about is how easily such a large number of artists were seduced. To my fellow artists, who oppose the capitalist/corporate model of production and who became artists for reasons other than money, I recommend that you re-evaluate your association with this corporate sponsor and then withdraw your participation.”

Something that author Naomi Klein wrote of in her book, No Logos, seems pertinent to this discussion. Klein noted the omnipresent corporate branding pervading every aspect of life in the U.S., to the point where “walking, talking, life-sized Tommy Hilfiger dolls, mummified in fully branded Tommy worlds,” can be found in all corners of the nation. Klein wrote that the conglomerates behind the marketable brands were less “the disseminators of goods or services than as collective hallucinations.” Artists working at the Levi print shop were aiding - whether they realized it or not - the corporate objective of controlling all public space.

When the Supreme Court voted in January 2010 to strike down restrictions barring corporations from showering political candidates with infinite amounts of money, a substantial number of Americans understood the decision as corruptive to the democratic process. But how is corporate patronage of elected officials all that different from big money sponsorship of the nation’s arts and culture? That is the question one needs to ask when considering the Levi-sponsored printmaking workshop.

The spectacle of Levi Strauss & Co. as a benevolent, socially responsible, and altruistic “corporate citizen” reminds me of a talk given by radical Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. His 2009 lecture, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, examines how charitable giving has become “the basic constituent” of today’s capitalist economy. Žižek contends that “In today’s capitalism, more and more, the tendency is to bring the two dimensions (charity and commerce) together in one and the same cluster, so that when you buy something - your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment, and so on, is already included into it. If you think I’m exaggerating you have them around the corner, walk into any Starbucks Coffee, and you will see how they explicitly tell you, I quote their campaign; ‘It’s not just what you are buying - it’s what you are buying into.’ (….) You don’t just buy a coffee, you buy - in the very consumerist act - you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist.”

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

British artist Andrew Park has brilliantly animated Žižek’s incisive lecture for the British Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA). The First as Tragedy, Then as Farce animation is not only enthralling to watch, it offers an essential critical assessment of the type of “cultural capitalism” now being implemented at the Levi Strauss & Co. print workshop.

I have to mention the “We Are All Workers” marketing campaign launched by Levi’s for its new line of “work wear.” With the U.S. economy at a standstill, unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, and millions of Americans losing their homes, Levi’s is promoting its expensive fashion line with proletarian sensibilities. Poster advertisements displaying slogans like “Everybody’s Work Is Equally Important,” “This Country Was Not Built By Men In Suits,” “Ready To Work,” and “We Are All Workers,” have appeared on city walls all across the United States.

But we are not all workers. Certainly those business executives that made the decision to close every Levis manufacturing plant in the U.S. are not workers, nor were their decisions made in the interests of working people.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s “Wear the Pants” and “All Asses Were Not Created Equal” campaigns were created by Draftfcb, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, a firm that handles global conglomerates like Boeing, Dow, and Lilly. The “We Are All Workers” campaign was designed for Levi Strauss by the Wieden+Kennedy ad firm. Perhaps the two should be combined for a new “truth in advertising” marketing campaign - “We Are All Asses.”