Bill Stern’s keen eye for California design

Visual arts

Uncle Sam loves citrusFor about half a century starting in the 1890s, California orange and lemon growers branded their wares using vivid and outstanding graphic design.

The fancifully imagined, richly colored paper labels adhered to wooden packing crates. When (pre-printed) cardboard boxes replaced the crates, labels fell into disuse. Warehouses were full of them by the early 1950s. Now they are valued art objects.

The citrus labels are displayed in an unusual context in a show at CAFAM galleries, 5814 Wilshire Blvd. Curator Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design, gave me a wonderful personal tour through his show called “Myth & Manpower: Graphics and the California Dream.”

Stern selects the best of the citrus labels, all noteworthy in their unabashed fantasy IamSomebody-guiderenderings of California agri-business. The labels project a culture of purity and wholesomeness to the point of sterility, carefully editing out any inkling of laborer sweat. In this version of reality, fruit magically appears, with no human intermediary, direct from the good earth.

He pairs them, one-by-one, with mirroring counter-versions reflecting the farm laborers’ reality — in the form of United Farm Worker labor movement posters. The kooky Uncle Sam citrus label, above, is paired with a UFW mobilizing poster, “Together We are Strong,” at right.

Stern teases out parallel tracks in both image and theme highlighting the intensely opposing messages. Fascinating that a piece of fruit could foster a propaganda war waged through pen and ink.

A citrus label image depicting carefree weekenders cruising in an automobile is paired with one in a UFWA poster galvanizing a worker’s strike.

These dueling propoganda tools, juxtaposed, reflect the power of graphic design to convey strong overt or subliminal messages. Taken together, they forge a complete picture — the real picture — of a significant chapter in California’s social and economic history.

Show is on view through January 10, 2010.

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Image credits: Archive, A.K. Smiley Public Library; Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles; Museum of California Design; Royal Chicano Air Force Archives

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