On a color-coded map of the 2016 election results, Dane County forms part of a blue archipelago in the lower middle of red-state Wisconsin.
It’s a four-hour drive up Interstate 94 from Madison, the county seat and state capitol, to Minneapolis, another progressive-leaning city that finds itself on a political island, surrounded by suburban and rural counties that by-and-large turned red for Donald Trump in November. And as Patrick JB Flynn motored across the red sea in-between on Jan. 20, he was set to arrive in Minneapolis just in time for a hundreds-strong Inauguration Day protest to pass within two blocks of his destination, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Speaking by cellphone from the car’s passenger seat, Flynn seemed tickled by the coincidence. MCAD’s gallery is hosting “Another Voice,” an exhibition of political illustration from the pages of The Progressive, the definitively left-of-center magazine with offices in Madison where, for most of the 1980s and part of the ’90s, Flynn served as art director.
We’re living in the moment of Trump and Putin, not Reagan and Gorbachev, but most of the illustrations remain, discouragingly, just as relevant today. It’s a target-rich environment for editorial illustrators, and the opportunities to mock politicians’ vanity and hypocrisies, to call out political doublespeak and to rail against the scourges of war, poverty, discrimination and environmental degradation are as plentiful as ever.
But if time has failed to dull the bite of these illustrations, that has more than a little to do with the quality of the work. Leveraging connections he made while working in New York City — where the publishing industry, particularly in the pre-Internet era, created a concentration of topflight editorial illustrators — Flynn managed to get some of the best in the field to contribute to The Progressive.
“I couldn’t pay them much, but I could give them freedom. And that’s why a lot of them ended up working for The Progressive, because I wouldn’t kill their art,” Flynn said.
Sue Coe’s searing imagery stands out in the gallery as much as it does on the page. An animal rights activist, Coe’s pencil drawing of a man in operating scrubs wearing animal parts like jewelry is a gruesome statement against vivisection. Coe’s art can be downright brutal, and a painted illustration of a mass burial during the Bosnian War is both hard to see and hard to look away from, a powerful testament to war atrocities.
Working in the tradition of Hogarth and Daumier, Steve Brodner pens an intensely cross-hatched caricature of Reagan that mocks “The Great Communicator” as a cardboard cutout of a president, an Oval Office ghost with just two dimensions and no depth. Mark Fisher’s “Oil Man,” on the other hand, is an image as pared-down and direct as an ideogram: a figure straight-jacketed in an oil can, rendered in a few thick, blunt lines.
It’s a treat seeing original Arnold Roth and Ralph Steadman drawings, and a pleasant surprise to come across illustrations from cartoonists Gary Panter — working in his scratchy, quasi-cubist mid-’80s style for a two-part illustration commenting on the military industrial complex — and Peter Kuper, who, as co-editor of the venerable left-wing comics anthology World War III Illustrated, has also published Coe’s cartooning.
Flynn graduated from MCAD in 1976, and after a stint at the short-lived Minneapolis tabloid Metropolis (outlasted by its closest competitor, the Twin Cities Reader) he moved to New York City, where he’d landed a job as a designer on a weekly sports section for the New York Times. His four-and-a-half years at the Times was Flynn’s “baptism in the world of newspapers,” but an opportunity with The Progressive lured the Souix Falls native back to the Midwest.
The job offer came with a pay cut, so Flynn negotiated.
“I basically made a deal with the editor — he was totally amenable — which was to give me freedom to do what I wanted with the art without too much interference from editorial,” he said.
Flynn encouraged bold, graphic work. The medium demanded it. The visual elements of The Progressive had to punch their way through the magazine’s black-and-white newsprint guts.
“I also looked for people who had a sense of humor and could think broadly, could think globally,” Flynn said. “We couldn’t afford to send photographers to Zimbabwe to cover any strife over there, but I could hire a guy like Bob Gale who’d actually been to Africa and knew the people and spent a lot of time rendering the people in villages and stuff. It was almost like having a visual reporter.”
For those who want to view it in this light, the show is also a fascinating examination of the editorial illustrator’s craft in the final years before it would be transformed into a largely digital process. Photoshop, the Wacom tablet, email and other tools have utterly changed the job — probably for the better, Flynn said — but David McLimans’ intricate mixed media collage of two strutting war profiteers, with its shredded newspapers, torn-up dollar bills and fabric torn from an American flag, is gloriously non-digital.
“I must say, selfishly speaking, I miss the real art, because there’s nothing like it,” Flynn said. “I would always tell people it was like my birthday every month. All this art would show up at the office and I would tear open my packages. It was pretty wonderful.”
When: Through March 5
Where: Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave.
Info: mcad.edu, 874-3700