STEP Inside Design
“It might be said that artists by nature long for a just and equitable world (as do people from all callings), and that this longing is what distinguishes humans from the animal kingdom, where power and might are the forces most in play and where, indeed, they most often win out,” notes Margaret Scarsdale in the foreword to Social Justice 2008, 12 Posters by Luba Lukova. “It might also be true that sometimes the harsh realities of human life make it look as if the ideal of justice in our society is a utopian dream. Yet progress towards social justice has only ever been possible because of those who would dare to dream, the “idealists”–those labeled “Quixotes” even–who have the courage to stand for what their hearts tell them is right and just.” Luba Lukova is one of those brave souls. Tackling some of today’s most complex, controversial topics, the 12 stunning posters showcased in Social Justice are both thought-provoking and inspiring. Each of the unbound posters comments on a single theme, such as health care, censorship, peace, immigration. As in all of Lukova’s work, the concepts are so arresting and powerful that the drawings emerge naturally, without unnecessary detail–every element of the story is already there. It’s art that connects with the viewer almost unconsciously, requiring no explanation. Content to let her images speak for themselves, this world-renowned artist leaves it up to the viewer to interpret and assign meaning. An added bonus, the inside of the case in which Social Justice is packaged is filled with hundreds of Lukova’s preliminary sketches. Based on its beauty alone, this portfolio is an essential part of any artist or designer’s collection. But the strong statements behind its striking imagery make it just as relevant for other audiences, particularly given the calls for social change we’ve been hearing in this election year.
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Luba: I definitely want to be against that tide. I think being more human
is what we need in every aspect of our lives. When I did my first theatre posters I realized that all the plays I had to read were basically about the same thing: human relationships. And yet the audience is never bored to watch these fables over and over again. Because people need to see themselves in art. So, it was very natural to me to use the human figure as my visual alphabet. This is also very challenging. I think that there is nothing more difficult than to draw people and to tell stories with the
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Baltimore City Paper
That's the old saw, anyway, for graphic design, an artistic profession that usually serves commerce. Get the consumer, the reader, the user, whomever, from opening paragraph to epilogue, from click to click, from impulse to purchase, effortlessly and elegantly. It's rarely the graphic designer's job to do anything more than inform, guide, or sell. Art is art, the thinking goes, and design is design.
Unless you're Luba Lukova, a Bulgarian-born, New York-based graphic artist whose striking and thoughtful editorial illustrations and off-Broadway posters are on display at Spur Design's Propaganda Gallery in Hampden. To her, the distinction is meaningless.
"Art is not a definition, it is an experience," Lukova says from her Long Island City studio. "If it moves you, to me it doesn't matter how they call it. If I want to move people and make them think, that means I am doing art. Art with a capital A."
She rails against graphic design's relegation to the back pages of art criticism and the profession's reputation as a lightweight calling--a reputation fulfilled by a preponderance of schools graduating design majors with two-year degrees. They're "drowning the profession in mediocrity," she says.
Good design, which strives for something more than decoration, is often more relevant than contemporary art, Lukova argues. Design has in the past, at least, played a more prominent role.
She points to her own experiences in communist Bulgaria, where she grew up and studied, as well as in other impoverished and struggling countries. Chinese artists in the nascent democratic movement, she observes by way of example, have produced a body of interesting and vigorous work. "Good design always comes from places where there are social changes," Lukova notes. "People use it to express themselves.
"I was in South Africa recently, and you see that they need design to open their eyes about AIDS, to improve the literacy. This is where design is necessary, not in societies that have everything, and when designers are just a group of people who have a good time all the time."
As a poster designer for a theater company in Sofia, Bulgaria, Lukova worked among artists, writers, and actors who practiced their crafts despite a regime that prohibited free expression. "A lot of people wanted to change that, and they did it through their work," she recalls, "but unfortunately the work was not public."
In that environment, Lukova adds, "people didn't make such a distinction between design and art, so I was influenced not so much by design but by art in general. Very stimulating for me was to work in the theater and be among writers and directors and to make design which equals their work somehow, or enhances their work."
Post-communism, Lukova visited New York in 1991, after attending a poster show in Colorado, and decided to stay. She continued to make theater posters advertising off-Broadway shows.
Her award-winning work is powerful, iconic, and distinct. It's deceivingly simple, the result of long hours spent turning a complex idea into a metaphorical design without oversimplifying it. In contrast to the multilayered and overwrought design prevalent in the United States, she works in as few colors as possible, often only black and red on white.
Figures with elongated limbs and bodies often morph into other objects, their wide-eyed faces humanizing or terrifying depending on the message. In a piece created for The New York Times to illustrate an article about music banned by totalitarian regimes, a wincing figure's fingers are nailed to a flute. A poster for a production of Romeo and Juliet shows praying hands pierced by a sword. Lukova's style, reminiscent all at once of Picasso, German Expressionism, and Medieval illuminated texts, serves her dual goals of simplicity and timelessness. Her best work is open-ended, ambiguous, and can stand on its own, unlike more conventional, airtight editorial illustration, whose job is to serve a text, ad, or event.
"No matter the scale of the work I do, it's first and always the idea and the emotion and the meaning I put into it," she says. And it matters little if the piece is called fine art or graphic design. "If you put enough seriousness in what you do, people always respond to it, so I don't mind so much how the art criticism will label my work."
Lukova doesn't relate to gallery-bound modern art and the critics who make their living in its midst, preferring design's immediacy and relevance.
"I'm not personally inspired by contemporary fine art," she says. "To me, it has become something for spoiled people, very existential, for people who are in love with themselves. They don't think about the audience, just making something provocative for the sake of being provocative, but without saying something that means something to more people. To me, that's an empty shell, even more empty than the most superficial design.
"Design is something that people see every day, so why not use that?" Lukova asks in the end. "Replace the emptiness of fine art with meaning, which can be so easily in contact with the audience, using the form of the design."