Shepard Fairey at The Warhol | Program Notes

Monday, October 19, 2009

Shepard Fairey at The Warhol

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 11:07 AM

This past Saturday night, I was a bad arts editor and didn't go to the museum's big opening for Supply and Demand. But earlier that day I was involved in something arguably as interesting, as one of four journos doing a walk-through of the show for a documentary film on the artist.

The documentary is by New York-based filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, who some years back made the arthouse favorite The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Fairey led us and the film crew on the walk-through, a boyish 39-year-old dressed in a Clash T-shirt and muddy Jam Master Jay Adidas. He talked about his work; we asked a few questions.

Before a wall-sized piece on the Warhol's fourth floor, I asked what he thinks he gains or loses by moving from a street-art practice (that began 20 years ago with those "Obey Giant" stickers) to a gallery-based one. "The opportunity to make an impact is a bit more profound" on the street, he admits. On the other hand, he feels galleries provide a chance for useful "cross-pollination" in how audiences think about art.

The street work continues: As he did during an August visit, Fairey took advantage of his time in Pittsburgh to install a bunch of wheat-pasted murals around town, including several that significantly improved some naked brick walls in the South Side.

Other tidbits from the walk-through: In the context of Fairey's poster-style critiques of capitalism, I took his use of the famous slogan "Freedom of the Press is Guaranteed to Those Who Own One" on one large-scale piece in the cynical light it was first offered. But Fairey's interpretation is optimistically DIY: Buy your own damn press.

I was also intrigued by a four-image piece depicting the heads of four African-Americans. Two of them were recognizable -- Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis (the latter among Fairey's favorite icons). The impulse to imagine that the other two must also be political figures was mistaken: They were "two people from '70s haircut books," Fairey said, included to demonstrate how we "make assumptions based on presentation."

We also chatted before a version of the Obama "Hope" poster, the one Fairey's gotten in trouble over -- first for basing it on an appropriated news photograph, and just last week for admitting he'd lied about which photo he'd used. (He's been mea culpa-ing publicly about the latter.)

The poster, his first-ever endorsement of a political candidate, was a self-starter project, begun before Super Tuesday, when Obama was still a longshot. An early version said "progress" instead of "hope," Fairey told us. But someone in the Obama campaign he consulted suggested changing it because "progress sounded too close to 'progressive,' and that sounded too close to 'socialist.'" But it became "change" and "vote" before they settled for "hope."

Given how Fairey's work frequently criticizes militarism, I wondered how he felt now that Obama was the guy in charge of the guns we're still firing overseas. Fairey stands by his endorsement, but his feelings about Obama's performance are mixed. The artist who calls himself "unusually impatient" about getting art projects done has more of a long view about progress effected (or not) by the man he helped elect: "He has to be careful about how he expends his political capital."



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