Regime Change Starts At Home – Shepard Fairey, Al Farrow and Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky), at the Irvine Contemporary(1412 14th St NW, Washington, DC.). The exhibit runs through Dec. 6, and the gallery is open Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Call 202-332-8767, or visit irvinecontemporary.com for more information.
Shepard Fairey, loosely referred to as the “obey giant” guy, has over the past 8 or 9 months become the “Obama poster” guy. Just as that work has become the center piece of Fairey’s career, it hangs here as the literal center piece for this show.
A native of Charleston, S.C. and a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Fairey now resides in Los Angeles. With esthetic roots steeped in skateboard culture and punk rock, it’s fairly predicable that he would have been involved with graffiti style street art early on. Far less predictable is how it’s all turned out.
A newspaper image of wrestler Andre the Giant caught Fairey’s eye while teaching a friend how to silkscreen stickers. Thinking it was a stupid idea, the friend passed on Shepard’s suggestion to use the image. However, the image struck Fairey as goofy and funny, so he used it himself. His cohorts referring to themselves in the vernacular language of the day as a “posse,” led him to include the text “Andre the Giant has a Posse” on the stickers. As a mischievous lark, he pasted the stickers around RISD’s environs in Providence, R.I. Much to Fairey’s amazement, people began to notice the enigmatic stickers and wonder what was up. Light bulb moment circa 1989, and just like that, an art career was born.
The original Andre the Giant stickers were quickly refined down to a menacing gaze with the word “Obey.” Aware of the sociological and semiotic aspects of this mini-phenomenon he had created, Fairey posted stickers further and further afield. Nearly 20 years later, he still posts images on the street every single day, conceived as a play on reverse psychology and as a ploy to get people to think and question the forces at work in their lives. However, like a magician’s trick, the effect only lasts as long as you don’t know what’s up with it all. “Obey Giant” in its various forms has since become an iconographic agitprop logo, in effect reversing the reverse psychology for those in the know.
While still seeming the down to earth jeans and T-shirt artist, Shepard Fairey at 38 is now more CEO than street punk. Husband and father of two young daughters, Fairey runs a small graphic arts empire that includes an art gallery and clothing line. While he does corporate advertising, his art making revolves around posters. Releasing a new silk screened poster online with a limited edition of around three to four hundred prints, the printing will often sell out in a day or two. Fairey is clearly no longer the enigmatic unknown street artist.
With a couple of decades of negative agitprop art behind him, he decided to try a new twist and made a positive message poster promoting his choice in the Democratic Presidential primary race. Receiving an under the table green light in late January of this year, the Obama “Progress” poster was designed and posted online the next day – 15 minutes later the print run of 350 had sold out. An additional quantity of posters was printed to post on the street. Roughly two weeks later the Obama campaign was receiving feedback and officially wanted Fairey to do a poster for them to sell. Working off a photo of their selection, and using the campaign’s slogan word “Hope,” poster number two came into being. Three weeks later, a third design was born with 5,000 “Change” posters printed for sale.
Normally, artists make an image, and then posters are made from that image to sell as cheaper ersatz art. Shepard Fairey puts the cart before the horse in that his posters are done first, and then works them up into handmade fine art images, typically laying the final image on top of a torn paper collage not unlike the way spray painted graffiti would look on top of layers of torn and weathered wheat-pasted posters on the street. It’s a style that gives the image depth and texture not found in the flat color fields of the silk screened posters. The Obama “Hope” image now on display at Irvine Contemporary was done in this fashion, as were all of the other Fairey images from his Duality of Humanity series also on view.
While the dark blue of the Obama image is opaque, the light blue, red, and off-white colors are transparent layers that reveal the Obey Giant logo and trademark Fairey patterning underneath. At 60 by 44 inches, it’s a sizable piece. There is a visual trade-off here. The graphic punch of the original posters is muted, while a depth of texture is gained. The images work at distance and remain entertaining at close range, while a straight printing of this size would not.
“Hope” is the third of three handmade Obama-themed images. While listed as POR (price on request), it’s worth noting that this piece was sold at auction in July for $108,000. Who knows what the scoop is here, but you get the feeling like it’s on loan, waiting to see how the election turns out. Should Obama become the 44th President of the United States, overnight this piece moves up from political curiosity to presidential artifact. In that event, it would seem destined for a museum.
As political campaigns go, the whole Obama poster phenomenon came out of nowhere. While iconic political portraiture plays a role in many places around the globe, here in the U.S. political posters are a somnambulant display of red, white and blue text stating the candidate’s name and the position sought. Printed and displayed in such mass quantities, the typical political poster is little more than public littering. Rarely do we see such objects rise to the level of even middling art.
In fact, the only other Political “art” that comes to mind from the past half century would be the Johnson television spot from 1964 when he ran against the maverick Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater. The “Daisy-Bomb countdown” ad from 1964 remains as one of the most incisive TV spots of all time. For something made 44 years ago, it has an eerie sense of current validity. Check it out … www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyVn9k6d1og.
Fairey’s “Duality of Humanity” images use Vietnam era imagery to deal with man’s desire for peace even while waging war – construction and destruction coexisting in our complex make up. Also be sure to check out the alleyway behind the gallery, and the space above.
The sculpture of Al Farrow on view here is first rate. Farrow welds together gun parts, and ammo into models of religious temples. The Christian reliquaries with human trigger finger bones in central glass vials are simply not to be missed.