Pittsburgh Post Gazette – Fairey shows his potential for Warhol legacy

November 12, 2009

If you live in Pittsburgh (or the area) and haven’t had the chance to check out Shepard’s 20 year survey of his artwork being exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum, read this review from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  It might spark some inspiration to skip a Steelers game and take a walk to the Warhol.  Click the link below to read the full article.

Article: Fairey shows his potential for Warhol legacy

Fairey shows his potential for Warhol legacy
Art review
Monday, October 26, 2009
By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You may not recognize artist Shepard Fairey’s name, but chances are you’ve seen his imagery.

During the presidential election, his Obama/HOPE poster catapulted him into mainstream attention, as has his ongoing legal tussle with the Associated Press over fair use of images.

If you’re a hipster, you may know his Andre the Giant/OBEY stickers that have, since their inception two decades ago, spread globally onto lamp posts, skateboards and other sites.

And you might have seen one of the politically charged posters he wheat-pasted on walls around Pittsburgh in August and earlier this month. A couple of those murals are mounted on a building across the street from The Andy Warhol Museum, where an exhibition of 250 of his works, “Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand,” opened Oct. 17.

The exhibition, which originated at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and spans his career, gives evidence that Fairey is more than a one-pop phenomenon by showing the body of work that positioned him to become a presence in the last presidential race.

While there’s no shortage of artists making political statements, Fairey stands out by combining underground rebelliousness with a sophisticated grasp of the power of image to inspire and to effect change, command of graphic design, prodigious output, and inventive ways of getting his message/work out.

Fairey, 39 and a resident of Los Angeles, grew up on a traditional family in Charleston, S.C. His father had been a football team captain and his mother a head cheerleader, and Fairey participated in sports at the private schools he attended.

His discovery of a skateboard community expressed itself through stickers and homemade T-shirts, and his appreciation of punk rock lyrics made him begin to question values he’d taken for granted. He decided to pursue art at the Rhode Island School of Design.

In the summer after his freshman year, Fairey was working for $4 an hour at a skateboard shop when a friend asked him how to make a stencil. As a joke, Fairey selected as subject the wrestler Andre the Giant, and convinced the skateboarder group to embrace Giant stickers by assigning him cool attributes such as “a posse.”

Interest in the streamlined image, to Fairey’s bemusement, snowballed and soon fans carried the Giant beyond Providence and the U.S. shores, pre-Internet, through what Fairey calls a “hipster chain letter.” Fairey also began pasting larger incarnations on the streets.

While at school, Fairey noticed a lack of interest in sociopolitical issues and wondered whether he could capitalize upon his Giant’s popularity to raise awareness. Fueled by influences as varied as philosophic studies, art movements like situationism, the psychology of advertising, and the B-movie “They Live” that featured mind-controlling aliens, Fairey incorporated the word OBEY into the simultaneously threatening and laughable image.

Thus was born the literal poster child for his two ongoing themes: Question everything and self-empowerment (he points to the distribution of his image — his brand, in essence — achieved on a minimum wage rather than a corporate budget).

Though the foundation, the Giant was just the beginning.

A potent wall of 88 prints, made in separate editions for sale to collectors and to paste on the streets, in turn rail against conformity or quietly challenge stereotypes. For example, a grimacing Western woman surrounded by the words “OBEY with Caution, Blind Acceptance Can Be Hazardous,” and a serene Arab woman with “OBEY Peace.” Many are in Fairey’s trademark red, black and white palette, reflecting influences ranging from Russian Constructivism to feminist artist Barbara Kruger.

The phrases escape being trite through highly charged formal compositions and contextualization within a larger, continuing body of work, reminiscent somewhat of Jenny Holzer’s early methodology.

Elsewhere, figures speak for themselves through the power vested by history, such as Martin Luther King and Mao. Other prints decry wars, past and present. Fairey says he has opinions rather than answers, and declares neutrality, claiming that he presents subjects, whether civil rights leaders or dictators, who are worth investigation but not necessarily adulation.

At times he tweaks his viewers, as in a series of Black Power images that includes Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson, but also a “Giant Nubian” who’s “just a guy from a ’70s haircut book,” Fairey says, though people continually try to identify the image as a specific Black Panther. The lesson is that symbol supersedes individuals.

He does allow that he became more specifically political after Iraq and the second George Bush election win, and considered taking action a responsibility. “I very much believe in democracy, and I’m a patriot,” Fairey says.

Tellingly the now famous painting of then-candidate Barack Obama hangs between two large, mixed-media works, one patterned on a stock certificate and the other on a dollar bill, that address the “Two Sides of Capitalism,” the “Good” and the “Bad.”

A critique of capitalism may seem somewhat incongruous from someone who employs 22 full-time staff, sells his artworks on an OBEY web site, has a fashion line, and runs the advertising agency Studio Number One with clients ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue to Red Bull. But it’s only one of the boundaries Fairey straddles.

There is a case to be made for Fairey as a claimant to Warhol’s legacy, making this venue particularly pertinent. He shares the commercial art, underground and fine arts worlds that Warhol broached; interest in contemporary events; appropriation of media imagery; exploration of techniques; a traditional background that exerts a push-pull upon his interests; and an insider-outsider status and strategy.

Thus, this exhibition is as much about potential as it is a survey of the artist’s past. Based on what’s here, the odds that he will justify such a claim are pretty high.

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