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Graphic design exhibition sparks dialogue and debate

Photo by Christopher Huang.

A new gallery exhibition at Northeastern has sparked debate and discussion over the role of graphic design in political discourse in the President Obama era.

“We the Designers,” curated by Professor Thomas Starr in the College of Arts, Media and Design, features work by graphic designers that examines political issues during Obama’s presidency.

“Obama’s election seemed like a turning point in our history, a period of high hopes and then a roller coaster ride of both disappointments and achievements,” Starr said. “And if design played such a major part in his election, I wanted to look at what part it is playing now.”

A panel discussion will take place at International Village in room #14 on Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 7:30 p.m., which will allow members of the campus community and others to exchange ideas and perspectives about the exhibit.

Part of Starr’s inspiration for the show, he explained, was the iconic “Hope” poster by Shepard Fairey, which quickly became synonymous with President Barack Obama’s 2008 run for office. The works in the exhibition, many of which were created specifically for the show, address such issues as the symbolism that surrounds Obama, and the policies enacted or pursued by his administration.

Among the most debated pieces of art in the show is an installation by Starr called “Exploded View,” which displays two flags, one without the American flag’s red stripes and the other without the blue box and white stars. Starr said the work is intended to show that partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans — represented by blue and red on political maps — have stymied national progress. The work was stolen last week but has since been returned; it will soon be reinstalled in International Village.

“We can’t be this red team and this blue team. It isn’t the Red Sox and the Yankees,” Starr said. “We think of red states and blue states so often, but to get anything done, we have to do it as one country.”

But some students have taken offense to the work, with more than 100 joining a Facebook page calling for the removal of “Exploded View.” Others, though, voiced their support of Starr’s work on the page, which has since been removed.

“It offends me as an American, to be honest with you,” said Patrick O’Neil, a sophomore finance major who carried a small American flag with him to the gallery opening last Wednesday night. “The flag is a very important symbol for the values it represents and stands for. To see it violated in this way offends me.”

Others students and visitors to the gallery, however, said they did not feel offended by the work, which they saw as thought provoking. Graphic design senior Christi Gallagher said she liked seeing how visual artists and designers conveyed a message or information through their artwork.

“It’s really rare to put graphic design in a museum or gallery, so I think this is a really great show,” said Lucinda Hitchcock, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design whose own work, a series of three posters entitled “Making Black” was displayed in Starr’s exhibition.

“When graphic design intends to make a message, you have to be careful,” Hitchcock said. “You’re still in the realm of the quick-read, the way people consume advertising or other media.”

“We the Designers” will be on display in International Village through Dec. 15, before moving on to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where it will be displayed from Jan. 16 through Feb. 11.