Leading the Flock
The work of street artist and accidental celebrity Shepard Fairey highlights West End Celebration.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Less than two weeks ago, much of the bottom floor of The Independent (formerly The Design Center) was a dusty space dominated by cement and emptiness. Today it’s a Valhalla of intricate portraits crafted by arguably the most influential American artist of the moment, Shepard Fairey. That sudden materialization is surprisingly typical in sleepy Sand City – Post No Bills did a similar appearing act in the neighboring space – particularly come late August, when the lonely industrial town with a population of a few hundred pulls in upwards of 5,000 people. They come for ample art, live music and progressive thinking. They also come to see just what might appear next.
This year the WEC music is uniformly strong and creative, but there is a show that could yank the attention from the stage and back to a wall: Local art collector and curator Andrew Jackson will display upwards of 46 pieces by art superstar Shepard Fairey. And Jackson, a longtime friend and collector of Fairey, can barely hide his giddiness.
“On the announcement of the show, there were 100 people on the buyer’s list at the end of the day,” Jackson says. “Since then there have been hundreds more.”
That’s a feeding frenzy. Jackson, who’s co-curating with Texas-based Toyroom Gallery, plans to bring in as many pieces as he can for the show, entitled Shepard Fairey: An Exhibition of Fine Art Prints, taking place during WEC at a big space next to Post No Bills (Fairey has made a career of posting “bills” wherever he damn well can).
Fairey’s pedigree includes study at the Idyllwild Arts Academy and the Rhode Island School of Design, and he’s made art since childhood. But prior to 2008, most of his art lived on the streets.
“My work’s always been a combination of the sensibility of democracy and urgency that comes with street art and DIY culture, whether punk rock or skateboarding,” he says. “But I also took art classes from a young age, so it can’t really be separated. [Art school] gave me access to screenprinting, which really became my aesthetic.”
His art, “thrown up” on walls, billboards, subways, water towers, signs, newspaper boxes and anywhere else it might be seen by an unsuspecting public, happened primarily in the form of stickers, stencils, posters and graffiti – cheap and fast stuff for the illegal work of the then-skateboard shop worker. The most ubiquitous of this work consisted of his anonymous appropriation and numerous reconstructions of a photograph of the late wrestler-turned-actor Andre the Giant; the renderings, with red and white captions reading either “Obey” or “Giant,” baffled a growing public about their purpose and meaning, which further amplified the attention it received.
“I’m trying to make images that I enjoy making and that also share some point of view of mine,” Fairey says. “My desire for empowerment, visual problem solving, passion for politics.”
His mix-up of icons, slogans and design can perplex, and seemingly end up pointing, “Ha! Made you think.”
“You’re bombarded with trash and advertising,” says Jackson, “and you’ll stumble across these artists who make you think about something. They’re not selling anything. That’s street art.”
Fairey’s name exploded out of the work of his now iconic blue and red Obama “Hope” posters (and stickers and T-shirts and buttons, etc.) that caught fire during the 2008 presidential campaign. That whole affair lived on a national stage, first owing to the public and the Obama campaign embracing the image – and then to the Obama camp disavowing connection to the work when the Associated Press, which owned the copyright to the photograph that served as its basis, sued Fairey for infringement.
Though Fairey says he believes what he did falls under fair use doctrine (the lesson, he laughs, is to “be smart”), the case has since been mostly settled out of court (and techdirt.com reported that then-AP freelance photographer Mannie Garcia said, “It’s a really cool piece of work”). But it flared on issues, questions and controversies that rumble underneath a lot of what Fairey and other street and underground artists do: appropriate images and icons, use new or alternative distribution and media, and foment independence, rebellion or even anarchy.
Fairey’s been there and done that and has gone on to another level, which includes a prominent feature in the 2010 documentary by fellow street artist Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which zoomed in on self-made “street artist” Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash (who attended last year’s Carmel Art & Film Festival).
“I think Banksy showed some authentic stuff and that society is really susceptible to the flavor of the week,” Fairey says. “Thierry’s a sweet guy. It’s more a commentary on the audience.”
Fairey’s name sits comfortably beside famous street artists like David Cho and Banksy; his work has resided at The Smithsonian, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and, as part of an attendance record-breaking group show called Art in the Streets that closed three weeks ago at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. He’s collected by celebs, intellectuals and other creatives and he’s had three solo museum shows (“which is a huge deal and I’m grateful,” he says). But he’s finding that success comes with a price.
“The art world is not a unified front and I’ve gotten plenty of criticism,” he says. “Some people hate my work and say it’s crap and derivative… Plenty [of] people think street art is not real art. I’m not trying to win over the art world, per se. But in the genre, there is work that I think deserves to be recognized in art history. Street art is going to affect culture whether the art establishment wants to accept it or not.”
What can get lost in all the hype is the art itself. Yes, it’s provocative and political (Fairey blogged, less than a week ago, about his support of the freeing of the West Memphis Three and the shortcomings of Obama’s presidency), and yes, it means, earnestly and maybe too simply, to wake people’s awareness, but it’s also visually mesmerizing. He sticks to his stenciling, graffiti and posterizing past, but has arrived at a style that has grown in intricacy and complexity, and absorbed related styles like the Constructivism of communist propaganda posters. The look is a hybrid of poster and tapestry, in collages and superimpositions and ironic juxtapositions (like a dainty little girl cradling a hand grenade), all held neatly together under Fairey’s trained eye. Much of his work is flaring and interwoven flourishes, cornices and Art Deco motifs resemble that of the U.S. dollar. Only in red.
“I own [‘Obey MLK’],” Jackson says reverently, referring to a 2004 spray paint stencil and collage on paper of Martin Luther King Jr. “There’s something about it that… there’s so much in there. I look at this painting inch by inch.”
While Friday’s opening reception is at capacity (Fairey says he won’t be able to attend, FYI), Saturday and Sunday the gallery will keep the same hours as the West End Celebration, and the work will be up for 30 days afterward. That’s 30 days in which Sand City’s aspirations of being an artist enclave will find unprecedented realization with the work of one of the stars of the art world.
For more of the Shepard Fairey interview, visit www.mcweekly.com/fairey.