Shepard Fairey’s iconoclasm at ICA Boston

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The author of this post, Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin, is a 2008 graduate of Harvard College in History of Art and Architecture and Italian Studies who works at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal and continues to fuel his interest in contemporary art by attending exhibits wherever his travels take him.

Before I knew it, I was implicated. Walking up to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, I noticed a man’s face, simple and graphic, stuck on a lamppost, looming from atop the ICA and plastered on newspaper dispensers in the lobby. LA-based artist Shepard Fairey had infiltrated my visual world without my knowing it.

A first view towards the ICA. Fairey's work had already begun. Photo by Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.
A first view towards the ICA. Fairey's work had already begun. Photo by Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

The face is the simplified version of Fairey’s earliest work Andre the Giant Has a Posse (1989), a graphic appropriation of an image of a wrestler that he turned into stickers, posters, stencils and other media and has since evolved into the brand Obey Giant and populated most of Fairey’s work. The ICA show, running until August 16, is the first to survey Fairey’s 20-year career, ranging from skateboards to wall murals, from hybrid propaganda posters to graphic icon portraits.

Shepard Fairey, Obama HOPE, 2008, Mixed media stencil collage on paper, Courtesy of Obey Giant Art
Shepard Fairey, Obama HOPE, 2008, Mixed media stencil collage on paper, Courtesy of Obey Giant Art

While unfamiliar with his work, I knew Fairey’s most famous piece: his patriotically colored campaign poster of now-President Barack Obama gazing upward over the word HOPE. This image has garnered both great praise – the National Portrait Gallery acquiring the work into its collection – and negative attention – the Associated Press suing the artist (and the artist the AP) over the copyright of the photograph.

Shepard Fairey, Obey Bush One Hell Of A Leader, 2004, silkscreen print. Taken from Carmichael Gallery: http://www.carmichaelgallery.com/available/shepardfaireyavailable.shtml.
Shepard Fairey, Obey Bush One Hell Of A Leader, 2004, silkscreen print. Taken from Carmichael Gallery: www.carmichaelgallery.com/

Overall, the artist accomplishes his goal of his 1990 Manifesto to “reawaken [in the viewer] a sense of wonder about one’s environment.” By reusing imagery, both known and unknown, he asks the viewer to reconsider his/her visual surroundings. Fairey’s propaganda posters are incredibly strong, drawing well-known imagery from Russian and Chinese revolutionary posters and American counter-cultural iconography, as well as playing with common concepts. For example, in Presidential Seal (2007), Fairey turns the American eagle into a vulture.

Obey Middle East Mural
Shepard Fairey, OBEY MIDDLE EAST MURAL, 2009, Mixed media stencil collage on canvas, Courtesy of Obey Giant Art.

Fairey’s strongest images by far are those that shy away from re-imagined propaganda posters and embrace the more complex tension between war and humanity. In a series of works mixing guns and flowers, children and war, Fairey creates compelling conflicting statements. Most striking is the installation created for the ICA Obey the Middle East (2009). Looking beyond the larger images of Arab women and weapons, I found in the works layers the face of Andre the Giant, a few of Fairey’s earlier posters, decorative passages and newspaper clippings. Fairey has evolved his work into more of an art, creating his own common imagery by reusing his earlier creations. Fairey creates his own icons in compelling, richly layered works of fine art.

Beyond being the Obama artist, Fairey’s oeuvre showcases his strong graphic style and textual wit coupled with an astute intelligence to appropriate and reinterpret symbols of modern visual culture. Fairey easily fits the mould of a modern-day Andy Warhol, appropriating common imagery, using advertising techniques of production (stenciling, screen prints, rubyliths) and distribution, and creating his own message, brand and icons in order to capture his viewer.

Shepard Fairey: Supply & Demand runs at the ICA until August 16. The exhibit continues on to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh from October 17 to January 31, 2010 and then to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati thereafter.

Tags

ica boston, shepard fairey

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