Distilling Andre’s face to the barest graphic simplicity and juxtaposing it with the cryptic directive, the Obey project, begun in 1995, blew up the modest Andre stickers to a massive assault of wheat-pasted posters, sometimes mutiply collaged to billboard size, on daringly visible urban facades around America. Fairey understands that the loss of visual information which accompanies reproduction (particularly when you Xerox a photograph) can transform the particular into the iconic, and it is this effect that makes his Obama image so memorable. As he explains it, “My direct visual inspiration was how the Korda photograph was simplified into the iconic Che image. I lifted [Obama’s] head to give that sense of ‘I can see into the future, let me take you there,’ and divided the shading into red and blue to add that idea of political convergence. But it’s in the liberties I took with the photo to reduce it to its essence—a bit like Rodchenko, Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols work and Fillmore poster artists like John Van Hamersveld—where it comes down to giving the right amount of visual information in the right way.”2
I’ve often heard Fairey admit that his ultimate goal, beyond his ambition on the street, is to be the author of a generation-defining image, the kind of optic trigger that Warhol’s banana cover for the first Velvet Underground record is for everyone who subsequently rejected corporate pop music in favor of archly difficult expressions. Does he think that his Obama poster has finally done that? He’s not so bold as to make the claim but acknowledges the effort. “I don’t really mind when people say I’ve been really lucky, because I have,” he explains. “But the success of this image is dependent on the context of my work.” That is, given his penchant for mass saturation and the social nature of his activities, every Fairey campaign (political or commercial) has a proven ability not just to get people to look but to buy, identify, wear, participate and spread the message, even when it could mean that they themselves might be breaking the law.
As the profile of street art rises with coverage in mainstream media and major art publications alike, with museum shows such as Fairey’s at the ICA or last summer’s problematic “Street Art” survey at London’s Tate Modern, and with wildly escalating auction prices for works by Banksy and the collective Faile, the fugitive art form clearly risks becoming the tasty new flavor of the moment. The authoritative discourse that the art world is beginning to bestow on street art smacks of a trendy fascination that is disturbingly reminiscent of the establishment’s rapid consumption and discarding of graffiti art in the early ’80s. The serious consideration afforded Fairey’s oeuvre by way of the ICA retrospective, however, is an opportunity to think about how shifting art away from sanctioned venues into the more fluid dynamics of the street can be as subversive as any twist or turn the avant-garde ever took.
“I’m a street artist, whether or not I show in galleries and museums,” he declares. “I believe in seizing public space in ways that make people question our use of it, but my art has nothing to do with the politics of street art. Much like my posters, albums, shirts or charity work, it’s really about communicating with as big an audience, with as few filters, as possible.”
Like Banksy and Barry McGee, his compatriots from the streets, Fairey now tempers his approach to the art world with the understanding that “fine art has to hold up to a closer scrutiny” than that allowed by the bustling surrounds of street art. He has been working hard toward that end, crafting with a designer’s eye canvases that mimic the compositional jewels achieved by the random layering of street posters, and abrading his surfaces as the elements would. But at the ICA he is also compelled to show the warts-and-all origins of his work in the same spirit that punk eschewed musicianship to let its audience understand that, indeed, anyone can do this. True to his mission, Fairey also traveled from his home in Los Angeles to Boston far in advance of the show to hit some 35 very visible and illegal spots in order to address an audience that might not otherwise walk through museum doors. And as one who freely admits, “In any situation I’m looking for all the angles and ways to leverage my own agenda,” he has wielded the museum’s influence to obtain legal access to a number of Boston walls, including the side of City Hall.
The verdict is far from in as to whether Fairey will be embraced by the art world to the degree he has by many other segments of our culture, but he remains the only guy I have ever known to be telling the truth when he says that, though critical acceptance would be nice, he doesn’t care about it all that much. “I’d much rather inspire a 15-year-old kid to question his government than impress the critics and collectors,” he asserts. And if people don’t get what a monumental difference there is between that and your typical artist’s ambitions, well, they just haven’t been paying attention.
1 Accessible online at obeygiant.com/headlines/check-it-out.
2 All quotes are from a Jan. 4, 2009, phone interview with the author.
“Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand” is on view at the Institute of Contem-porary Art, Boston [Feb. 6- Aug. 16]. It is accompanied by a 449-page catalogue that is a reprint of Fairey’s 2006 book Obey: Supply and Demand, with updated material, and essays and an interview by curator Emily Moore Brouillet.
Carlo McCormick is a New York-based writer and senior editor at Paper magazine.