Shepard Fairey Opens His Largest Solo Show, in L.A.The "Obama Hope" poster artist talks about the origins of the iconic image and artists' responsibility in the Trump era.
When Shepard Fairey was an anonymous street artist, he often was arrested for vandalism. Now, Fairey is a blue-chip name and still tangles with law enforcement (he faces vandalism charges in Michigan). But he doesn’t need to work in shadowy alleys anymore. He does it to maintain street cred and the anarchic spirit of the art form that made him famous.
That doesn’t mean you won’t find him in more conventional surroundings like galleries and museums. In fact, he’s opening the largest solo show of his career, “Damaged,” on Saturday at the Library Street Collective in Los Angeles.
If you need a primer on Fairey, check out the bio-doc, “Obey Giant,” currently on Hulu, tracing the rise of the 1992 Rhode Island School of Design grad through his “Obey” poster of the mid-aughts, a graphic black-and-white stencil of legendary pro wrestler, Andre the Giant. This ubiquitous image can still be found on T-shirts, hats, buildings, billboards and even in museums. If “Obey” doesn’t ring a bell, then surely the Obama “Hope” poster from the 2008 campaign will. It’s an image of the 44th president that spread around the globe and has been parodied in myriad ways.
“Damaged” includes over 200 pieces as well as interactive features such as a printing press, stencils for people to try their hand at their own Shepard Fairey work, and a large-scale sculpture—a medium in which he has only dabbled in the past.
“There’s a newspaper stand for ‘The Damaged Times,’ ” Fairey says of one of the show’s interactive elements. “You can walk up and grab a newspaper. There’ll be newspaper boys, too. It’s the biggest show of my entire career, biggest anywhere. There’s going to be a music component, a couple of bands and a hip-hop artist. There’s a billboard in the space that replicates what I do on the street.”
Recently, he took a break from installing “Damaged” to talk about the fallacy of art for art’s sake, the grass-roots origins of the “Hope” poster and the responsibility of artists in the Trump era.
Jordan Riefe: You use a lot of rips and tears and layers as an aesthetic device in the show. What are you getting at?
Shepard Fairey: I think it works beautifully visually, and it makes sense conceptually with what’s going on right now. Everyone’s got their communication, but they don’t respect anyone else’s. There’s a lot of hostility. Also, I’ve expanded my color palette. Most people know my work as red, black, gold, cream or white. And I’m using blues in this, and I guess you could say the color scheme from the Obama poster mixed with “We the People” mixed with the other colors.
JR: What new muscles were you exercising with the large-scale sculpture?
SF: I have two versions of it, which is about a 20 percent larger-than-life-size figure of a guy reading a newspaper that says “Manifest Density.” And half its face is a skull, and underneath it says, “No future for ignorance apathy, sexism, racism, xenophobia.” But it’s exciting to get these pieces done. It’s a long process, but they’re turning out really well. And I think the illustration achieves a certain thing, but this (sculpture) is more dynamic, it’s more impactful.
JR: By now you must have seen a million parodies of the “Hope” poster. Which ones stick out?
SF: There’s been so many different ones that are amusing. It was [Sen. John] McCain done in the same style that said, “Nope” underneath it. I don’t know if you know this, but it wasn’t commissioned by the Obama campaign. I just did it as a tool of grass-roots support, and it sort of took off. But it all points back to this thing that I did as an independent artist with no major connection to any of the donors or corporations or party bigwigs. So it all goes back to the power of grass roots. So any time someone says there’s no point doing anything, the powerful people have it all locked up. That might be true some of the time, but you never know what’s going to happen. You’re more powerful than you think. I did this with 700 posters.
JR: Has the responsibility of artists changed in the Trump era?
SF: I think we all have a responsibility to be politically engaged. How that manifests depends on the person. For some people, it’s going to be voting, but for not enough people is it even voting? The way I feel about it is I do a lot of preaching about political issues and social issues. It’s logical for me to comment on the two. I think everybody has the responsibility to just be aware of what’s going on, to be an advocate for the best outcome for themselves and greater society. I try to be compassionate and thoughtful and not just thinking about myself, but a lot of people can’t even learn enough to do things for themselves. To abdicate responsibilities and then scapegoat is just intolerable to me.
JR: During the protest era of the ’60s, there was a mantra, “art for art’s sake.” What’s your response to that notion?
SF: Some people who are creative are barely clinging to sanity. And if art for art’s sake is what it takes to get them through the day, then I can get down with that. And most people who make art are in better touch with the best side of their humanity. But I think most people use the “art for art’s sake” as an excuse to not do more. I don’t want to say I know how everyone should make art, but I do think that having the courage to use your voice creatively for more than just something that you can sort of justify as art for art’s sake, to stand behind it in a meaningful way, is important. I’m a populist. I want to democratize things.
JR: I read that there’s a warrant out for you in Michigan?
SF: I’m still in the middle of a case in Detroit. It was dismissed by the lower court because they considered there wasn’t enough evidence against me. Then the city appealed to a higher court. So we’re waiting. It’s a byproduct of allegedly doing street art that I’ve had to deal with for my entire career. My philosophy about street art is there’s a way to integrate it into the public space without being destructive, and the public space should have more than advertising and signage. But not everybody agrees.Wait, before you go…
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