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Rage Against the Machine

Fairchild sheds light on market-made images

Charles Fairchild's "Terra Incognito" uses antique images to tweak modern-day graphic propaganda.
"Dialectic" (2000)

By Tim Hill | Posted 8/15/2001

Utopia/Automatic Rhetoric & Reality

Charles Fairchild

PhotoWorks through Aug. 31

There is a war raging in the world of graphic design. As more people get their hands on computers, corporations and marketers take advantage of their growing sophistication and bombard them with subtler and more guilingly deceptive messages. The electronic information age has promised democracy and understanding, but so far its legacy is confusion and ambiguity.

Graphic design is a battlefield because it is the realm where information and images meet. Depending on the alchemy of the two, viewers/consumers are informed or coerced. Many artists--from the crew at the anti-corporate magazine Adbusters to the late Tibor Kalman--use the corporations' own graphic language to fight back, wielding the tools of the medium to deconstruct it. But you might have difficulty understanding artist Charles Fairchild's take on the matter. Unless you know something about the Colonial-era origins of the modern "global market," or realize that the banal stock photography that populates ads and corporate reports originated in the first mass-produced images of Victorian clip-art catalogs, his digital print collages, currently on display at Hampden's PhotoWorks, might be initially puzzling.

Fairchild's use of old lithograph images, grainy photographs, and the blocky Copperplate typeface give this collection of 23 digital print collages a distinct, if anachronistic, feel. The pieces at first look old-fashioned and confusing: How can you attack the modern image machine with a bunch of old clip art? But ultimately this alien appearance proves to be the works' strength. Fairchild uses contemporary language but illustrates it with antique images, maps, and photographs of news figures, evoking not just the modern world of graphic propaganda but its history.

Some prints are flow diagrams that connect people, places, and events. Some resemble medical drawings. Others suggest postage stamps. All wish to reveal the confusion and ambiguity proffered by politicians and multinational corporations by exposing subtle connections in a format that's often akin to scientific illustration. "Exterminating Angels" (2001), for example, uses a map, photographs, and a table of elements to delineate the connection between Germany's atrocities in Africa at the turn of the 20th century with the Eisenhower administration's manipulation of African regimes nearly 60 years later. Both sets of geopolitical maneuvering had the same end: control of precious metals.

Elsewhere, Fairchild relies on the strength (or confusion) of language, slipping words out of context to show how they can be made meaningless. In "Tending the Garden of Ideas" (2000), there's a paragraph composed of various multinationals' statements on environmental issues: "GM will continue to work with all governmental entities for the development of technically sound and financially responsible environmental laws and regulations." The artist emphasizes the offending phrase (unnecessarily, in this reviewer's opinion) and tightens or removes spaces between words and letters to draw attention to the rhetoric. A line of yellow flowers along the bottom suggests these words may in fact be rampant weeds. It's in such confusion across generations of images that the silliness and deception of marketing language and corporate propaganda is revealed.

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