Towery’s work evolved beyond timepieces, wading into systemic racism and other issues facing the country. A combat veteran who recalls encountering racism upon his return from Vietnam, Towery said he wanted to capture the experience of being a Black man in America as racial justice and politics converge ahead of a presidential election expected to bring record turnout.
Towery, 68, joins several artists whose work is now emblazoned on posters included in “Good Trouble/UDecide,” a part-virtual D.C. exhibition of poster art encouraging people to vote. The posters are being hung this week around the city — but also can be printed and hung wherever there are people with computers and printers.
Organizers plan to blanket the nation’s capital with about 200 images less than two weeks before Election Day, targeting residents who haven’t yet cast a ballot or who sat out the 2016 election. The exhibit includes images selected from hundreds of artists who submitted their work for consideration, illustrating text provided by the organizers.
Hanging the signs on city property is a violation of D.C. law and can carry a fine, but city officials late this week said they had not encountered any that are part of the exhibit
Towery, who lives in Austin and founded an organization to help prevent suicide among military veterans, calls one of his works in the show — based on a photograph of a frail Black woman being carried from the polls by police in the 1940s — “I’ll Be Back.”
“That, to me, is how precious the right to vote is,” he said. “People had to persist. Hopefully, when they see that, they will understand that they have to get out and vote because it was a right that was earned.”
The exhibit is co-curated by Charles Krause, a former Washington Post correspondent turned founder of D.C.’s Center for Contemporary Political Art, a gallery in a political town focused on political imagery.
Krause, who was shot in 1978 by followers of the Rev. Jim Jones in Guyana, said his interest in political art was sparked by dissident artists in the Soviet Union, where he worked as a reporter, and by the anti-communist Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s. Solidarity was known not just for changing the history of the Eastern Bloc, but also for its striking logo.
“In a world where there are less resources — where people are up against really tough situations with food and water and everything else — we’re not going to have the luxury of having art that is just pretty pictures,” he said. “Art is going to have to be part of the same society trying to survive forest fires.”
Though some images in the exhibition might be described as pretty, they are more likely to be considered confrontational. President Trump in a KKK hood or grabbing the Statue of Liberty’s breast. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett wearing a handmaid’s bonnet as seen in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Krause said the posters in “Good Trouble/UDecide,” whose title honors the legacy of the late representative John Lewis (D-Ga.), are meant to be nonpartisan, and he’s open to displaying work by conservative artists. In 2017, for example, he hung a pro-Trump painting in his gallery after the National Portrait Gallery, just down the street, declined to display it.
Still, many posters in the exhibit, which Krause said also will be hung in New York, do not favor the White House’s current occupant.
“If you look at them, you can tell which candidates the artists are favoring,” he said.
Victoria Sybrandi, the Amsterdam-based artist who created the KKK image, said it was inspired by Trump’s previous failures to denounce white supremacy. She said voters should be respectful of other opinions but also be well-informed before casting their ballots.
“I have an opinion. Otherwise I wouldn’t make these images,” she said. “But, obviously, the dialogue is polarized in America and Europe. You can’t have a normal discussion.”
Other images simply offer stark statistics. Krause included a work by Michele Castagnetti, a Los Angeles-based artist, featuring a huge skull emblem with a number, “200,000+,” that, in the pandemic’s seventh month, needs no explanation.
Castagnetti said he doesn’t consider himself a Democrat or a Republican, but he hopes his work can sway public opinion.
“I think that people can be influenced,” he said. “I think that art that points in a direction of some sort of enlightenment or reveals some kind of truth that you are not aware of — that’s always going to open a sort of dialogue.”
Carol A. Wells, the founder and executive director of the California-based Center for the Study of Political Graphics, said she became interested in political posters in the 1980s during a trip to Nicaragua. Though revolutionaries there were demonized by Ronald Reagan, she said she thought the art boldly refuted an American president’s dogma.
“I saw how posters interacted with people — how they broke through the bubble we live with every day,” she said. Of political street art, she said, “You’re not going to a museum to see a Picasso. You’re walking down the street living life and something breaks through.”
Not everyone was ready for Good Trouble/UDecide this week as it debuted on the streets of downtown Washington. Krause and co-curator Mel Hardy, of the Millennium Arts Salon in Columbia Heights, sought to blanket New York Avenue on Wednesday with about three dozen posters between Chinatown and Black Lives Matter Plaza. They were confronted almost immediately by a man they assumed was a member of law enforcement in an unmarked white vehicle with flashing lights.
The man told them they were breaking the law but wouldn’t identify himself and then drove away.
Though D.C. police said they weren’t aware of the incident, the city prohibits such displays. D.C. regulations say “signs, aside from those otherwise authorized by law, shall not be displayed or projected on public space, buildings, or property owned or controlled by the Mayor.” A first violation carries a $150 fine.
D.C. Department of Public Works officials late this week said they have not encountered the signs but said in a statement, “We don’t condone posting such signs.”
Hardy, wearing a mask this week that read, “I Can’t Breathe,” defended the power of the work the exhibit is showcasing — and its right to be seen.
“We believe we can articulate dimensions of the American social polity at least as well as government can,” he said. “Our mission is to lift the creative class.”
Krause said he thought the mission was to let people know that, from now through Nov. 3, they have a chance to make a choice.
“It seems that the election is going to be as much about how many people vote as who they vote for,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone could be undecided at this point, but there clearly are some.”