Shepard Fairey: Damaged
Presented by Obey Giant and Library Street Collective
Through December 17th
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Photos by Stephen Levey, Shana Nys Dambrot and Werkartz
Each one of the big, bigger, and biggest new paintings in this sprawling exhibition is in itself animated by the same layer upon layer, peeling, bulging surfaces as an urban wall, endlessly posted on and painted over in a deep palimpsest that marks time like street geology. The paintings are complex, nuanced, rough and raw, finely detailed, gestural, and at times abstract in a way that street art can’t be. Fairey’s use of collage elements reference both in their legible content and physical embodiment, what it is to bring the street back into the studio. The texture, due to mixed media as well as the deft, hand-rendered surfaces, make effective counterparts to the impossible crispness of his poster aesthetic. For some reason, even Shepard’s biggest fans don’t always realize he’s at heart a painter. This show should put that to rest, even as it delivers the goods for fans of the print studio and the street practice. Also put to rest, any question about Fairey’s personal commitment to social justice. More on that later.
In addition to the suite of new paintings — which are deservedly the stars of the show — there’s a diorama of the artist’s studio, featuring retired stencils displayed as artifacts, a busy easel, a well-used printing press and all the accoutrements, and a now-depleted stack of the limited edition newspaper produced for the show. It has a certain Natural History Museum quality, as well as eccentric ties to art history like those classic vintage photos of artist studios). But the installation also serves as a kind of fulcrum inside the exhibition space, the balancing point which in one direction leads to a wide-ranging collection of print editions, and in the other, sends you toward the paintings. A choice must be made.
Fairey is calling himself “artist/activist” now in his official bio but honestly that’s just an articulated embrace of something that has fueled him for decades. In the context of this new body of work, it’s a statement deliberately made toward his renewed, more overt emphasis on advocacy and conversation, believing it is now downright urgent to take responsibility for his own citizenship — and to inspire others to do the same. A proud progressive who has worked extensively in support of issues surrounding sexism, immigration, xenophobia, gun control, voting rights, DACA, economic corruption, marriage equality, criminal justice, racism, police violence, environment/climate/resource justice, and more. He has been a longstanding purveyor of social critique, media literacy, celebrity skepticism, and subversive heroes. Overall it’s a very ideas-driven career, and a suitably narrative exhibition, one that really hearkens to his conceptual framework, in an expository or exegesis of his own manifesto.
To this end, the new documentary on Hulu is also playing in a small room at the exhibition. As a film, it’s worth watching. It presents both/all sides — the lovers and the haters and Shepard’s own. It traces his early love of punk music as social critique, the aesthetic influence of band flyers and graffiti, and his commitment to making room for art in the public space. An early experience made him realize that people will read into things whatever they want, and he started paying attention to the potential consequences in the culture, making meta-work deconstructing that phenomenon — from Obey to everything since. It tells the whole story in between Andre and Obama that you think you know but you probably don’t. Saliently, it also traces the evolution of his political profile from post-911 reactionary threats to the disappointing 2004 election, years of anti-war work and the birth of his daughters, the 2008 Obama Hope situation. And now Trump. You can tell how he’s feeling about things from rather dire painting titles like “Wrong Path” “Ideal Power” “Gas Soldier” “Fossil Factory” “Fragile Peace” “Collusion Dealers” “Church of Consumption” “Wake Up” and so forth.
In contrast to the textural warmth of the paintings which share their messages and cannibalize their parts in their profusions, the prints are as crisp and sharp and declarative as ever. This is that core Fairey magic that’s instantly iconic in any circumstance — in large part because of his direct appropriation of propagandistic and advertising tropes and strategies that have worked from everything to communism, hair care, bond trades, and book jackets. Reworking the power of those motifs for good instead of evil is kind of his thing. “Why should the bad guys have all the weapons?” as he is fond of asking. Using the strategies of propaganda to spread a better message makes a certain amount of sense, and tickles a certain kind of earnest irony. In fine art it’s called appropriation which is also a legitimate term of art history, and functions as a way to connect ideas across eras/generations by borrowing and juxtaposing from primary source materials. As is addressed in the film, there is also a special and fluid relationship emerging between originality and fair use within the new post-street paradigm. It’s a fascinating set of issues, both creative and legal. From shredded prints to fractured society, as the documentary illustrates, there’s more than one kind of damage.
The newspaper elements including a sculptural installation of a newsstand, directly reference the influence of a certain campy classic called “They Live!” by John Carpenter. Fairey talks about it in the documentary, and how it has this profound modern day social media mind-control corollary, paying special attention to the undercurrent of conformity. It’s where “OBEY” came from in the first place. “The Damaged Times” is a newspaper sporting the “Manifest Destiny!” headline and featuring writers like Naomi Klein (on climate), Henry Rollins (on oppression), and Shepard himself in the most manifesto-like artist statement since the Futurists. All the passionate, incendiary, well-researched writing is technically op-ed, but it has its facts straight. The “ads” are all Shepard’s prints and paintings; it’s newsprint, black and white with red, packed with full-page reproductions of key works. They are free while supplies last.
Library Street Collective: http://www.lscgallery.com/upcoming-exhibitions/
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DAMAGED | 1650 Naud Street 90012 | Wed – Sun, 11AM – 6PM through December 17