One of my students recently asked if "commercial" art exists. I inferred from his question the belief that art is the product of an individual's vision. Since, by definition, commercial art is created not for its own merit but to sell another product, it doesn't meet this criterion. In other words, since the commercial artist operates within the parameters of someone else's standards, my student was making the assertion that design is not the same thing as art. Given the fact that my alma mater delineates this difference in its very name (Columbus College of Art & Design), I don't disagree.

This is not to say designers can't be artists. I am only supporting the possibility that just because you are an artist doesn't mean you are making art. After all, the employees of Subway are called "sandwich artists," but they are definitely making sandwiches. Designers aren't so different. They are making pictures of sandwiches.

So, how is it some people, operating under much more oppressive regimes than, say, an ad agency, can transcend mediocrity to design something original and beautiful? The Polish Poster: Paradox, Metaphor and Symbolism doesn't answer this question. It simply demonstrates that good design can last well beyond its intended commercial purpose.

I admit, I was skeptical. The show sounded too specific to be relevant, let alone enjoyable. Little did I know Polish poster design has a cohesive vibe as tangible as any other art movement, something the show's organizers do a great job of showcasing.

In all, there are more than 50 posters, most of them for movies or plays. In some cases, names or faces are recognizable, but my limited knowledge of the Polish language (kielbasa, jet ski) often obscured the subject until I peeked at the title card. For example, I was admiring an image of a tiny figure ascending a flight of stairs carved out of a man's head only to learn the poster was for the film Working Girl.

Perhaps the posters appeared exotic due to my inability to read them (a Polish-speaker might find them more pedestrian), but the surrealism and psychedelia rampant in the work are also distinct. Since the bulk of the posters date from the '70s, trippy imagery is to be expected, but I got the sense these designers weren't concerned with factual representations of the source material. In general, symbolism takes precedence over clarity, so the images are more creative and less illustrative.

Entering the gallery, a man with a hex nut for a head greets the viewer. Trees with nude torsos thrash at each other. A bespectacled cyclops, 10 feet in the air, watches over the room. Everything from Julius Caesar to Chinatown is made unrecognizable compared to its American equivalent; this is because these designers did not follow the formula for what Hollywood thinks people want in movie posters—namely, a close-up of the star's face. In fact, not one of the posters on view is purely photographic, and only a few feature images of the actors. Instead, the posters are usually graphically simple paintings with bold colors and very little text.

In the best cases, the subjects look more menacing than is typical, to equal the darkness of the source material. Arthur Kopit's play Indians is represented by the ghastly skull of Buffalo Bill. A poster for Cabaret depicts four bent legs of dancing girls that intersect in a red field—the overall composition becomes a Nazi flag.

The SFCC gallery is packed, but the viewer should slow down and take in each work. This show serves not only as a slice of history, but also as a fine example of design as art—the difference being these works don't make one want to see the movie; they make one want to see the poster.

The Polish Poster: Paradox, Metaphor and Symbolism
Through Nov. 12

Santa Fe Community College Visual Arts Gallery
6401 S. Richards Ave.