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Review: Shepard Fairey at ICA Boston

March 23, 2009 |  7:00 am

Obey Reporting from Boston -- Shepard Fairey is a talented Los Angeles graphic designer who has twice hit the big time with the public. Provocative connections between the two episodes emerge from a survey of Fairey's work at the Institute of Contemporary Art here. So do the rather stark limitations of his work.

Fairey's first impact was commercial -- "Obey Giant," a 1989 street-art project that grew into a thriving youth-market business in stickers, posters, apparel, notebooks and other retail products. His second was political -- a 2008 poster made independently to support Barack Obama's presidential aspirations, which was quickly embraced by the candidate and an ever-widening cadre of supporters.

"Obey Giant" became a cash cow. "Obama Hope" became the successful campaign's defining image.

The 39-year-old designer on view in the ICA's "Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand" possesses a  limited pictorial vocabulary, while the grandest curatorial claims made for the nearly 250 examples in the galleries are unsupportable. But the 20-year success of "Obey Giant" can't be denied, nor can the efficacy of its strategies in establishing "Obama Hope" in the public consciousness. If neither adds up to major art or effective counterculture politics, both are plainly worth considering.

Visually and conceptually, Fairey's work is to graphic design what sampling is to pop music. His catalog of fragmentary sources includes Russian Constructivist propaganda (Varvara Stepanova, the Stenberg brothers, Alexander Rodchenko), FaireyAndy Warhol's high-contrast silk-screen technique, anonymous news photographs (using an Associated Press photo of Obama has generated a lawsuit), American government-issue engravings (stamps, currency, pamphlets), Barbara Kruger's red-white-and-black Minimalist images with text, psychedelic advertising, Mexico's Popular Graphics Workshop from the 1940s, Cold War commercials and much more.

All are populist forms. Fairey appropriates, fragments, combines and colors them, almost always as screenprints and occasionally with the addition of hand-painting. Sometimes he prints on white or off-white paper. More interesting are the prints made on newsprint overlaid with decorative patterning.

These surfaces have a nostalgic aura. Musty and...

... domestic, like something half-remembered from childhood visits to grandma's house, they recall old-fashioned wallpaper in faded rooms. The aroma of ruin and decay is enhanced by tattered elements of collage.

"Obey Giant" began when Fairey, born in South Carolina, was a 19-year-old student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, 50 miles south of Boston. He made black-and-white stickers featuring an offset portrait of a 520-pound, 7-foot-4 professional wrestler, plus the legend "Andre the Giant has a posse." Fairey and friends plastered the stickers on any available surface -- store windows, phone booths, walls, fences. The pre-teen sticker-mania of the 1980s got mashed into the era's blue-nose warning labels for record albums, and something wonderfully weird was born.

If you knew who Andre was, you could accept or reject being in his posse -- his fan club. If you didn't know, you were left to wonder what the mystery subculture was about.

Eventually the image got refined. A flat, high-contrast icon in black ink on white rises above the single word, "OBEY," set against a bright red ground. With variations, that later became the Obama motif.

The inspiration for "Obey Giant" was John Carpenter's 1988 comedy-cum-sci-fi thriller "They Live," a Reagan-era movie in which the American ruling class was actually composed of aliens, who retained wealth and power through exploitation of subliminal advertising. The film's dark hero, George Nada -- played by pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper -- discovers a pair of magic sunglasses that, when worn, allows him to see the word "obey" hidden in every commercial billboard on the street.

What did Fairey's "Obey Giant" mean? Nothing, really -- or, in keeping with Carpenter's symbolism, nada. The stickers and posters are the public expression of a private enthusiasm, uttered freely and without social permission from authorities in an arena usually reserved for sale to business. In trickle-down America, that was enough.

Emily Moore Brouillet, the show's co-curator (with Pedro H. Alonzo), writes in the big catalog: "Obey Giant utilizes the language and aesthetics of advertising, yet advertises nothing." She's half-right. Back when Fairey was unknown, the imagery did possess the power to confuse -- to create the simple question, "What's that?," in a viewer's mind. The absence of an obvious answer, alien to almost all graphic imagery that washes over us in public every day, caused a brain ripple.

But for "Obey Giant" that cognitive dissonance is long gone. Success answered the question, "What's that?," with "That's a Shepard Fairey." Cognitive dissonance got replaced by conventional branding. The existence of a powerful brand is good for business, but it pretty much neuters claims of social nonconformity or underground rebellion for his work.

Two Sides of Capitalism: Bad After an introductory gallery that chronicles the genesis of "Obey Giant," the exhibition unfolds thematically. Conventional images of war, peace and pop music predominate, with forays into book-jacket design --Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" -- as well as covers for Mad and Time magazines. The final gallery features enormous new works on the theme of money and power, gigantic currency that juxtaposes private power and public works as opposite side's of the federal coin.

Because of the sampling technique, it all looks pretty familiar, even when the source is more obscure than Warhol or Stepanova. Forty-plus years ago Robert Dowd, a minor L.A. Pop artist whose work is currently being surveyed at Pepperdine University's Weisman Museum, made similar politically oriented works using altered U.S. currency. Even a 1964 Dowd postage-stamp painting turns up in a Fairey anti-Iraq war collage, which transforms a travel image of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser into a roadside-bomb explosion.

The dissonant political tensions between art and advertising have also been more powerfully addressed before. "Chris Burden Promo," a 1976 TV commercial, inserted the name of the ambitious, little-known young artist into a famous roster that included Leonardo, Michelangelo and Van Gogh, and aired on late-night TV. Even today, its "What's that?" structure remains effective.

By contrast, Fairey's claims to questioning authority through guerrilla interventions in the public sphere are jejune. Obey Giant is now an industry, Hello Kitty with pretensions.

Indeed, the most refreshing aspect of Fairey's design-work is its unvarnished embrace of propaganda as a functional form. He uses propaganda's established arsenal -- repetition, appeals to authority, direct orders, flag waving and more -- and never to such good effect as in the great red-white-and-blue Obama poster. What a political candidate wants is for his image to be branded in the largest possible public consciousness. The opposite of questioning authority, a propaganda poster rallies followers -- Obama has a posse -- which gives the image political purpose.

In the ICA show it's the museum, not the art, that strains for political effect. Although it's a 20-year survey, more than 80% of what's on view was made since 2003. The curators hitch Fairey to an era defined by the gruesome, arguably illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which only underscores how toothless the work is. The politics of the present remain virtually untouched by flower-power images of peace signs and veiled Arab women wielding AK-47s, which claim an essential superiority for maternal benevolence.

Tell it to Imelda Marcos and Margaret Thatcher.

--Christopher Knight

Top: "Obey Icon Pole" (2008). Credit: Obey Giant Art. Bottom: Two Sides of Capitalism: Bad" (2007, 2008). Credit: Jonathan LeVine Gallery

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