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ART REVIEW : Fury + Political Attack= Graphic AIDS Message

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the annals of modern agitprop, Gran Fury has quickly come to occupy a special place. A New York-based collective of 10 artist/activist members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), who came together spontaneously in 1988, Gran Fury has produced the most substantive and successful political graphic art of the postwar era in the United States.

The mere thought of agitational propaganda causes some to curl a lip and conjure visions of an alien enemy doing deceitful things. Gran Fury, however, has brought the technique out of the closet and into the respectable light of day. They’ve done it by understanding the special demands on agitprop in a mass-culture world, sophisticated demands in which the simplicity of commercial advertising merges with the complexity of political insight.

The clearest testament to their success in this difficult arena came in the wake of aHolocaust-related design of an emblem for activism in the AIDS crisis--the slogan “Silence = Death,” printed beneath an inverted pink triangle. The rapid, wide-spread embrace of the emblem, designed by a Gran Fury member just before the group’s formation, attested to its power as agitprop.

It isn’t likely that the same response will greet the poster Gran Fury has now designed and distributed to 83 bus shelters throughout Los Angeles, El Segundo, Burbank, Inglewood, Pasadena and Torrance--not because it isn’t good (it is), but because lightning rarely strikes the same place twice. Still, the bus-shelter project scores a bull’s-eye. Part of a bicoastal effort sponsored here by the Museum of Contemporary Art, the posters will remain on view through at least March 25.

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“Women Don’t Get AIDS. They Just Die From It” announces the provocative sign in big, bold letters. The puzzling conundrum is explained in smaller type: “65% of HIV positive women get sick and die from chronic infections that don’t fit the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of AIDS. Without that recognition women are denied access to what little healthcare exists. The CDC must expand the definition of AIDS.”

Utilizing a common advertising strategy, the poster grabs attention by posing a perplexing riddle: How can a woman not get AIDS, yet still die from the disease?

Next, it offers critical information that solves the puzzle: Because the health and science establishment is set up according to a masculine model of symptomatic infections, the majority of women who do have AIDS are not diagnosed as such, and thus must fend for themselves.

Finally, it inspires anger: Once solved, the riddle seems to have been miraculously transformed into a searingly sarcastic utterance of disgust. “Women don’t get AIDS, they just die from it.” Empathetically, the reader understands the fury.

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In “Silence = Death,” the pink triangle--established symbol of the Nazis’ attempted genocide of homosexual men--was used as a pointed means for linking institutionalized homophobia with the shameful mishandling of the AIDS pandemic. In their bus shelter, institutionalized sexism toward women bears a similar burden of responsibility.

To underscore the point, the purple background of the poster also carries an established symbol: a stock photograph of three beauty-pageant contestants, identically posed and clad in bathing suits and high heels. Significantly, the contestants’ faces have been cropped just above their broadly smiling mouths. Save for identification of the state, emblazoned on a banner across their bodies, these anonymous women have no individual identities. They form a ghoulish chorus line behind the damning text.

Gran Fury’s deft invocation of institutionalized sexism as a contributing factor to the AIDS crisis is subtly joined by nods toward the politics of race and class, which also continue to play their heinous parts. Half of the bus-shelter posters have been printed in Spanish--an effort to reach the minority women who are statistically at the highest risk of contracting AIDS--and most are found in ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhoods of Central, East and South-Central Los Angeles. It’s safe to say the shelters themselves are not frequented by the upper echelons of power.

Historically, in their effort to create authentic expressions speaking for and to an aggrieved working class, artists making effective agitprop have relied on images and devices common to folk art. (Think of the heady years following the 1917 Revolution, when agitprop trains were exuberantly decorated with modernized, but still recognizable, Russian folk art.) Instead, Gran Fury works with symbols familiar to a mass-culture world, and for a pressing reason: With AIDS, stereotypes can kill.

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* Gran Fury members Tom Kalin and Mark Simpson, and critic and art historian David Deitcher, will discuss the bus-shelter project Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213-621-2766) .

* POSTER POWER

Artists’ collective Gran Fury vents its anger over the AIDS crisis with a poster campaign at bus shelters. F5


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