Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts
February 6 - August 16, 2009
Shepard Fairey is a clean-cut, upstanding, all-American guy. He remains true to skateboard culture and “bombing,” plastering his stickers and wheat-pasting his posters in the urban streetscape, so his probity may seem hard to believe. After all, on the very day that this exhibition opened—his first at a museum—he was arrested by Boston police for vandalism.
For all the urgency and earnestness of his imagery—punk musicians, sixties peace activists, Black Power advocates, Third World revolutionaries—his is a visual repertory of nostalgia, more quaint than cutting. Is this because of his schematic graphic technique, unquestionably of a very high order, that relies on contrasts within a limited palette? Is this because the artworks—some stenciled on wood achieving an instant craquelure, others on collaged newsprint, yet others on discontinued wallpaper—look prematurely aged, incorporating an appearance of venerable deterioration within their contemporary substance? Whatever the answer, the results exemplify an accelerated trajectory from protest against tangible wrongs—Greetings from Iraq (2006) reads, “Enjoy a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”—through cooption to commercialization, and aestheticization.
Fairey manipulates this progression masterfully on every scale from sticker to vast mural, contriving poster signifiers of propaganda and advertising with empty referents that, at their best, pinpoint the mechanisms of pictorial persuasion. His strategy is opaquely solipsistic, associating his ostensible subjects with repeated emblems of his own Fairey brand, such as “OBEY,” and a stylized derivation of wrestler Andre the Giant’s face that he stenciled early in his career, and which is now part of his personal mythology. In his reworking of Alberto Korda’s familiar 1960 photograph of Che Guevera (Gigante, 1997), the Obey Giant icon appears in place of the expected badge on the revolutionary’s beret. Fairey thus creates what he terms “paradoxes that help people question a charismatic order,” membership of which he himself is acquiring by promoting his own identity, the true paradox of Fairey’s art.
The large-scale presentation by the ICA of Fairey’s art as a crossover from the street to the museum, and its further gloss as also spanning the commercial world, ignores the status of such a claim as itself nostalgic for a time when art was “pure.” There are no contradictions in reconciling these practices for Fairey, for he is a profoundly conservative American individualist. “If you work hard and are industrious, you can create your own Utopian way of doing things under capitalism,” he stated. But Utopia is a social, not an individual, concept. Fairey may protest a wide variety of abuses, as in Rise Above Cop (2007) in which one of America’s finest, baton raised, addresses the viewer, “I’m gonna kick your ass and get away with it,” but nowhere does he propose social means of redress, only individual grievance.
In this setting, his most famous work, thanks to the Internet, Obama HOPE (2008), has already acquired an air of distant longing. It obeys the rule that governs this entire impressive body of work: that the rate of cooption of the subversive visual gesture has accelerated so much that it is hard pressed to generate more than nostalgia.