Charleston City Paper

October 03, 2001

October 3rd, 2001
By Kristen Rhodes

Shepard Fairey is an enigma. As one of the more successful street artists in the past 12 years, the Charleston-born and bred Fairey also has a marketing company in San Diego, lending his campaigning abilities to bands and corporate behemoths. The art world has paid quite a bit of respect to Fairey, and with work in the permanent collections of museums such as The New Museum and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, he is probably the most notable artist to come out of Charleston – ever. How do you balance a street campaign of Andre the Giant, among many others, which is aimed at getting people to notice their surroundings and question what is spoonfed to them in the media, while your day job is spent helping Mountain Dew and Volkswagen sell their products? It may seem contradictory by some standards. But Fairey seems to view it all as “absurdist propaganda,” and if different sections of society pay him notice – so be it.

The Halsey Gallery is hosting an exhibit of Fairey’s work, along with New York artist Anthony Dominguez in Obey & Slay: Art From the Street through Nov. 3. Fairey will be giving a lecture before the opening reception this Friday (4 p.m. in room 309 of the Simons Center). The work will be screenprinted images on paper, metal and wood, along with a couple of large canvases. The lecture will be on how Fairey built up his art campaign and how you too, can do what you, want to do if you have the patience and resourcefulness.

In addition to being an artist and marketing genius, Fairey could be considered an amateur sociologist. From the various “Giant” images he has mined a great many reactions, and he could probably tell you your religious and political beliefs, what kind of music you listen to, and how many times you’ve seen Star Wars by what you have to say about the dead wrestler telling you to “obey.” Those intriguing reactions to his stickers and posters has turned a joke into a worldwide phenomenon. The former skater-punk’s innate sense of marketing can’t hurt the success of the Andre stickers either. He explains, “When you make certain people hate something, you make the opposite group, by default, like it. They just know it irritates people they don’t like.”

The first stickers were clearly absurd, but there is no denying political and philosophical implications in the later work. From a more “Orwellian” Andre, to pop-culture figures, communist leaders, and black leaders, there is a lot of content in the work and the meanings are not obvious. Viewers bring their own baggage to interpreting the conundrum.

After more than a decade, where is Fairey going with all of this? He doesn’t mind controversy and says, “Stuff that provokes more questions is where my work’s at now. Things go in cycles. Perpetual maintenance is how I can keep this up. It’s the same as how society functions. It’s also about recycling. My stuff on the street gets taken down – so it’s decay, rebirth, and renewal.”

When asked about the idea of “public art” and what most consider to be “official” public art, as opposed to unsanctioned public art, Fairey says, “There is a place for what I do. Everyone wants to categorize stuff – it’s on the street so they don’t attach elitist labels to it. It was never a stepping stone to get into museums. It’s nice to be recognized, but the whole point was to circumvent that. It was a populist thing. With galleries and museums, it’s preaching to the converted. I know how I came into art and politics -through punk rock – and wanted to put something out there that was in that vein.”

In light of recent events, it may not be the best time to be a guerrilla artist questioning authority. Fairey admits, “I feel like there could be a backlash towards my work since it’s antagonistic towards propaganda. I am afraid – I mean patriotism can be good, but anyone who has an opposing viewpoint is considered ‘un-American.’ People begin to feel they must censor themselves. It’s dangerous.”

The continual evolution of the Andre the Giant campaign is fascinating. To keep the public’s interest and intrigue for more than a few weeks, let alone years, is a feat in and of itself. We’ll have to wait and see how the Giant deals with the New World Order.