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Poster design appeals to Joseph Woolfolk’s midcentury sensibilities and political beliefs

The first thing that strikes you upon entering artist Joseph’s Woolfolk’s live-in studio are the enormous glowing bulbs beaming down from the gray metal shell of a full-size streetlamp top, ensconced in the living-room ceiling. He tells how he recovered it for $20 from an old Salvation Army building that was upgrading its lighting. Meanwhile, you’re wondering whether you could pull that off in your own house.

The fixture is just one of many cool midcentury lights, mixed in with vintage furniture, retro travel posters and, of course, the original and hand-painted posters, traffic signs and other paintings by Woolfolk himself. Passionate about midcentury design, he began exploring sign-painting methods and poster design as far back as 2000.

We pause to chat in a petite office space graced with a Detroit freeway-exit sign, painted by Woolfolk (he’s from the Motor City), and a small desk dominated by a Mac Pro. This is where poster designs begin being carefully mapped out in Adobe Illustrator and then printed out as colorless blueprints. Next, we head out to the garage. The art deco theme doesn’t skip a beat — the door leading out has been painted like a windowed detective-office door from the ’20s, gold lettering spelling out “garage.” Inside, we find Woolfolk’s custom-built workbench, tools and poster blueprints meticulously organized in metal flat files built into the table. He lays a print on top and then covers it with a sheet of glass lined with clear acetate.

Woolfolk takes the paint-by-number format to the next level. Each visual detail of the poster is numbered corresponding to the hue of numbered cans of spay paint. He traces and cuts out details from the acetate and sprays the required tone. The result is pure brilliant color applied directly to the glass surface, creating a bold, luminous image.

The tedious technical perfection and rich color has Woolfolk’s poster work competing with the best vintage poster visuals out there. The appealing colors and layout pulls viewers in, but what keeps them there is the powerful, politically charged content that Woolfolk subtly weaves into the seemingly benign format.

“I didn’t really know I was very political till I started doing [posters],” he explains. “It just started coming out. The George [W.] Bush administration inspired a lot of fury in me.”

In his exhibit, Poster Power, on display at the Contemporary Art Center, a poster reading “Economic Stimulus Packages” comments on Bush-era policies: Two fat bankers with golden parachutes float down from a smoking airplane, dollar bills leaking from their stuffed briefcases; in the center, a blue-collar worker freefalls, reaching out but finding nothing to grab. Topics range from the cosmetic, with a pair of plump red lips sucking on a “Collagen Pop,” to terrorist detention, with a turban-clad prisoner tied down to the sandy beach of the “Gitmo Bay Getaway!” Riffing on Aspen ski travel posters, “Ski Yucca” depicts a skier fitted with gas mask and radiation protection suit for a journey down the mountain.

Modeled after WPA posters from the 1930s and ’40s, the charming format, coupled with dark humor, offers an ideal vehicle for venting frustrations and expressing viewpoints.

“That’s why I like posters … why I titled the show Poster Power,” Woolfolk says. “A poster has the power to convey really complex ideas in a way that you can grasp really quickly.”

POSTER POWER Thursday-Saturday, 2-7 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., through Jan. 26; Contemporary Art Center, inside the Arts Factory, 107 E. Charleston Blvd.,