October 16, 1999

art & culture fall 1998
POWER TO THE POSSE by Carlo McCormik
For more than nine years, San Diego-bound artist Shepard Fairey has been on the trail of something even bigger than a 7’4″, 520lb wrestler. Through stickering, guerrilla-style street postering and gallery shows of his “obey giant Has A Posse” propaganda campaign, he’s been quietly chasing the big one: the lofty goal of total global visual domination. Carlo McCormick hits the streets for a closer look. Photos by Adam Wallacavage.

One should always be careful what one jokes about. We understand a lot more about jokes than those once-simple days of backslapping guffaws, and what we understand is that there is always a kernel of truth and intent in all humor, no matter how absurd or benign it’s presentation. This sort of thinking may be employed in psychological speculations on the subliminal hostilities, desires, phobias and insecurities contained in our most quotidian of amusements; it can even become the hyper-sensitized territory of political correctness in which any ethnic, violent, sexist or racial terms are deemed inappropriate or “not funny.” But as an aesthetic consideration of the form and content of art itself, the case of Shepard Fairey presents a unique dilemma. His was a modest, almost trivial joke that has totally run amok, and as it gets ever grander in scope, completely overtaking Fairey’s entire oeuvre, it just will not play itself out. Rather, Shepard Fairey’s flippant prank continues to accrue greater intensity, complexity, ambition and sophistication. His ongoing “obey giant” project is nearing a decade of unrelenting manic activity and remains as much of an utter provocation as ever, but by now the jokes not funny anymore. It’s dead serious and right on it’s deconstruction of society and it’s signs, and by some totally perverse twist of fate, it has come to represent a validated consensus construct of truth. In short, it’s still nonsense, yet real nonetheless.

The elaborate semiotic satire of Fairey’s obey giant began back in 1989, while Shepard was still a student up in Providence at Rhode Island School of Design, making stickers for bands and the local skate scene. That first Andre sticker, a shoddy Kinko’s paper Xerox, did not only open a creative vista on the visual strategies of media manipulation for Fairey–a Topography of seduction, super-saturation and hard-sell urgency he’s still exploring-it apparently pressed a rarely accessed button in the social consciousness that propelled the artist and his icon far beyond the local community he was addressing. Originally a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the rising “gang-banging mentality within the skate scene” as well as a way to “make fun of the way white culture steals the cool affectations of black culture,” his simple lowbrow and low quality image told us “Andre The Giant Has A Posse.” It said no more, and that perhaps was it’s true genius. As Fairey explains, “It got a lot of attention because no one knew what it was.” Or, more to the point, in an age when nearly every image is produced and disseminated by and for the business of commodity consumerism, the very spectacle of so commercial an image/slogan combination thrown into the world on such a public scale must have made everyone stop and wonder what the hell was being advertised anyway.

“No one does anything for no reason,” Fairey quite rightly contends, before adding, “I guess there aren’t too many Dadaists out there,” almost as if confessing in this little aside how much of a ridiculous prank his whole huge body of work and all the rhetoric surrounding it really is. Based on the “real life” personality of the celebrated pro wrestler from the first generation of WWF’s outrageous showbiz cast of characters, Fairey has shamelessly lifted the entire name and identity of this beloved cartoonish caricature of a hero with the same corny come-on craft of exaggeration, misrepresentation and hype. In the evolution of the ensuing sticker and poster program, however, the artist has had to confront so many issues intrinsic to the convergent processes of production, promotion, perception and consumption, that the awareness-and thus the intent-of the discreet social patterns at work in this fine art of persuasion has actually politicized the whole project.

Andre may reveal Shepard Fairey’s hopeless attraction to what he calls “the power of propaganda,” but like a Rorschach he’s been staring at for nine years straight, it’s generalized abstraction has become a hallucinatory screen of projected desire, a totemic artifact that spits out a relentless stream of fragmentary and disjointed insights, impressions and innuendoes regarding the deeper, darker aspects of our social psyche.

Like the very best jokes, obey giant is a smart as it is stupid. A minimalism maximized, Fairey’s fantasy of covering the country with stickers has become a reality beyond anything he imagined. By signifying nothing it tells us a great deal, and these are among the many contradictions that somehow make sense in this acutely obscure oeuvre. “How far can this joke go?” he asks himself, to which he must answer, “it can go so far as to stop being a joke.” And this of course makes Fairey laugh out loud, because for him to even consider that it has “gotten more serious” is to acknowledge the most ridiculous aspect of this entire farce. By being about nothing in particular, Andre is an enigma that demands explanation. He is primarily street art, and as such it is more than relevant to consider the context of the graffiti movement that stands before him. That is, any time an obey giant sticker is put up anywhere it is an act of vandalism. An ad that sells nothing and is not paid for is not just a crime against property and place; it is a dangerous and detrimental subversion of our most revered, prolific and universal language: the semiotics of commerce.

As a slogan without an agenda, “obey giant Has A Posse” is more like a riddle. Fairey’s art is very much a provocation, and it’s sharpest edge lies in the fact that it is not so much an attack on anything in particular but rather an assault of everything in general. “I’m not making fun of advertising,” he insists. “That would be preaching to the choir. The knee-jerk reactions to say ‘stop racism’ or ‘question authority’ effect a predetermined response.” By instead issuing a far more ambiguous statement, Fairey makes us actually question what lies behind it rather than simply write the whole sentiment off as another once intriguing but now overused concept to which we are destined. To understand the method to his madness, one has only to think of it as a methodology in and of itself. In an attempt to make sense of all this nonsense I can’t help but think of his casual reference to Dada. As a cultural strategy, Dadaism can be best exemplified by the Duchampian conceit, whereby the prosaic object becomes art simply by the artist calling it such. Under these terms, just as Duchamp could submit a urinal for our aesthetic consideration merely by framing it in the context of an art exhibition, Shepard Fairey enacts the same discourse by taking the visage of a deceased wrestling star and entering him into the culturally inappropriate realms of art, advertising and merchandise.

We’ve seen The Giant on subways, billboards, t-shirts, skateboards, gallery walls and even film-in a movie on the whole movement by Helen Stickler called obey giant Has A Posse: The Documentary-and all the while he’s never once offered an explanation for his alien and unlikely presence. And this, ultimately, is his potency-the frustration of his viewer in trying to read what is essentially a blank text. Fairey tells us he hates slogans like “question authority,” yet that’s exactly what he’s making us do. If Duchamp made us question the authority of the fine art object, Fairey similarly makes us question the authority of all other media in this age of mass media. He calls it “an experiment in phenomenology,” hanging this great mystery of looking at the obvious on the analytical discipline of the great 20th century German philosopher Heidegger. And that’s how the Andre anomaly addresses the world. Because he doesn’t belong yet fits so well, he functions as a disruption in the easy, consensual flow of information. By resisting explanation himself, he draws into question all that is around him-which in the case of Fairey’s ambitious manufacture is about everything. He is so familiar, his incompatibility towards his environment constitutes the matrix of a conspicuous alienation to which we remain by and large oblivious (or at least inured). His is a cult of and for cults. As you look at the broad array of stylistic impersonations he has adopted throughout the years, think of him as the chameleon of taste, a barometer of desire in packaging. A lexicon of visual puns riffing on Hendrix, Ozzy, Gene Simmons, Neil Armstrong, Psychedelia, heavy metal, rave, kitsch, Marlboro cigarettes, or, most recently, the graphic imperatives of fascist and social realist art traditions, Andre The Giant is the signifier for communication itself, because what is said hardly matters compared to how it is said. In a society “motivated by symbols,” where “everyone wants to rally around something,” Shepard Fairey tells us, “I’m just trying to get your attention.” He understands so well the role of advertising and the image in terms of influencing the way people think or determining their consumption patterns that Fairey has no problem getting our attention. The thing is, he’s not asking us to pay particular attention to Andre Rousimmoff or the public presence he took on as obey giant, rather to just consider the psychology and social poetics of how we are all being manipulated in this world of signs.

Carlo McCormick is a New York-based art critic and writer who knows a good bit of subversion when he sees it.