Video: Movin' on up: Former street artist gets first show at ICA

Chris Bergeron

Once an underground artist, Shepard Fairey has become a brand name.

Over 20 years he's morphed from art student to skateboarding graffiti tagger. A once little-known street artist whose posters challenged authority, he's exploded into a cultural phenomenon with as many fans as critics.

As a Rhode Island School of Design student in 1989, Fairey's subversive Andre the Giant poster campaign forged a signature style equally funky, retro and marketable. His reputation metastasized as he and fans around the globe pasted his graphic images of Stalin, Mao, Tupac and others on lampposts, billboards and empty walls.

The son of a South Carolina doctor, Fairey whose little-used first name is Frank exploded into the ionosphere of public awareness last year when his image of Barack Obama, emblazoned with the word "Hope," was endorsed by the candidate's campaign and 800,000 copies were distributed.

Now a sweeping retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art of Fairey's improbable ascent pronounces him, according to Director Jill Medvedow, an artist whose "integration of design, popular culture and politics places him in the current of artistic and cultural forces that shape our world today."

Titled "Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand," the first solo show of his work features more than 200 pieces including decorated skateboards, images of revolutionaries and rock stars, George Orwell's Big Brother, George Bush with fangs, the Obama image which Time magazine used for its Person of the Year cover and a powerful wall-sized installation commissioned by the ICA.

Describing Fairey's impact, Medvedow said his "powerful and varied body of work has reached into all aspects of our visual culture from political posters to T-shirts ad album covers, and now museum installations."

Co-organized by Pedro H. Alonzo and Emily Moore Bouillet, the exhibit is bright, bold, comprehensive and mucho fun because it feels so hip.

At a well-attended Tuesday morning opening, Alonzo gushingly praised Fairey's art for its social and political impact. Fairey's work, he said, was "empowering" for "questioning society and making it better."

Alonzo said Fairey's art incorporated "literary references to the abuse of power and what can go wrong if we are not mindful of it."

Fifty years ago the same would have been more credibly spoken of Orwell whose prophetic novels "1984" and "Animal Farm" are now sold in the ICA gift shop with ominous covers by Fairey.

"Supply and Demand" comprises works in varied media including screen prints, stencils, stickers, rubylith illustrations, collages and works on wood, metal and canvas. It is divided thematically into several sections: "Propaganda," "Portraiture," "Hierarchies of Power," "War and Peace," "Stylized," "Music" and "Question Everything." It runs through Aug. 16.

The critical praise of Fairey's art often seemed grander than individual works which are commonly red-tinted poster-like images of revolutionaries, musicians or offbeat celebrities set above a counter-intuitive slogan.

For Alonzo, "Fairey's work is a call to action about hierarchies and abuses of power, politics and the commodification of culture.

"Fairey is committed to creating work that has meaning for his audience by using familiar cultural iconography that people can relate to, and by constantly bring his work into the public sphere," he said.

To his credit, Fairey responded to his coronation with self-deprecating humor.

Wearing sneakers and a black Clash T-shirt, he downplayed the grand assessments. Instead he cast his art as a progression of earlier attacks on authority.

"It's embarrassing to call art work," he said. "...It's my justification for 20 years mischief."

Reflecting on his career, Fairey divided his art into "street pieces" and "more finessed fine art."

"When it's on canvas, it's fine art," he said. "...I want to communicate with everyone, not just the people who see art in a gallery."

Fairey said his Obama poster "like others was not original" but adapted from an image he initially found online. He left no doubt he hoped his work would be judged for its social consciousness and not just traditional aesthetics. "It's important to have a point of view," he said. "A lot of people can paint a better landscape than I."

Fairey described his artistic credo in disarmingly simple terms. "It's important to make fun of authority and have a sense of humor. Submission to everything monolithic is not a good thing," he said.

Now 39, he moderated his renegade image as an artist rebelling against everything. The exhibit's last section, "Question Everything," featured two wall-sized images on opposite sides of the gallery contrasting the good and bad "Sides of Capitalism," which makes sense since the ICA exhibit is sponsored by Levi Strauss & Co.

When an audience member asked how art changes when it moves "from the street to the gallery," Fairey quickly replied, "It gains tons of dollar signs."

A recent claim by the Associated Press that Fairey based his Obama image without credit on their photo has revived earlier criticism he frequently "appropriated" or borrowed others' images rather than create his own.

The coronation of Fairey as artist-as-social-critic reveals as much about the commercialization of street culture as the uncertain aesthetic value of his own work.

Viewers made anxious by art they've been told is great but don't understand why will be comforted by recognizable images of Che Guevera, Angela Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Flavor Flav and lots of other celebrity revolutionaries.

At first glance, many of Fairey's images resemble propaganda posters that might have been plastered on walls in revolutionary era Moscow, Shanghai or Hanoi.

But from the beginning, Fairey subverted the authority of the powerful figures he portrayed, like Lenin, a Vietnamese guerrilla or Uncle Sam, by adding in block letters across the poster bottom, OBEY.

His visual mantra, Obey Castro, Obey (Johnny) Rotten, Obey Punk Chomsky, Obey Surveillance Eye, Obey Soup Can, touched a rebellious counter-cultural chord that already believed no one should be trusted.

Many considered Fairey's ironic OBEY posters the epitome of chic rebellion.

But others felt his knowing winks to a generation programmed to skepticism were the same as advertising Miller Lite during the Super Bowl.

So why are unknown graffiti taggers spray-painting "(expletive) Shepard Fairey" on newspaper boxes along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge?

See the exhibit and decide for yourself.

With so many conflicting assessments floating about, visitors might ask: Has an elitist art-world-gone-nuts anointed Fairey the newest pop culture Picasso?

Or is he just another flavor du jour whose work makes Andy Warhol's look like Michelangelo's?

As Alonzo said, "The best way to see Shepard's work is to run into it."

That's good advice.

OBEY Shepard Fairey. OBEY Shepard Fairey. OBEY Shepard Fairey.

THE ESSENTIALS:

The Institute of Contemporary Art is at 100 Northern Ave., in South Boston.

It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and students; and free for members and children 17 and younger.

Several events have been scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit:

  • Thursday, Feb. 12, noon: Curator Pedro Alonzo discusses Shepard Fairey's work in a lunch-hour discussion. Free with museum admission. Space is limited.
  • Saturday, April 4, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Speakers from different fields will discuss Fairey's work in relation to grassroots civic action, punk rock and 1980s graffiti and skate culture.
  • Sunday, May 17, 10 a.m. and Sunday, June 28, 10 a.m.: Alonzo will lead a six-stop bike tour of Fairey's public work in Boston and Cambridge. The tour will cover approximately 10 miles. Tickets: $20, general admission; $15 ICA members, students and seniors.

For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit www.icaboston.org.

The MetroWest Daily News