Shepard Fairey and Banksy once shared the distinction of being anonymous individuals whose particular style of guerrilla art was known all over the world. But anonymity is hardly something that Mr Fairey can claim these days. He is now something of a media darling, both for his art and various legal problems arising from it. This summer also sees the first major museum retrospective of Fairey’s work at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati.
The CAC, known for, amongst other things, as being the first USA museum project realized by superarchitect Zahia Hadid, will run their Shepard Fairey exhibition throughout the summer of 2010. The exhibition is entirely in keeping with a programme ethos that has seen the CAC eager to engage younger audiences by showcasing artists whose practice deploys or engages with popular and underground culture. Entirely in keeping with this energetic approach and Fairey’s own practice, it will include a number of special murals on a range of locations throughout the city.
Through his Obey iconography, Shephard Fairey’s work was one of the prime forms of a new type of ‘graffiti’ and guerilla art that rose to prominence in the 1990’s. Less the stuff of spray cans and from-the-hip production, Fairey’s Obey projects were distinctive of a new generation of urban artists who paid attention to the lessons of arts and graphics schools and to the developments in printing and computer technologies.
In Fairey’s particular case, the visual languages of communist propaganda styles, particularly of bygone eras, was appropriated into producing works that might take on the form of illicit poster projects. Rather like the uninvited political conscience of the American mainstream, Fairey’s very direct political commentary, typical of a Gen-X left-of-centre critique of mainstream US culture, would pop up on buildings and in public spaces. On more than one occasion, his illegal bill posting activities landed him in trouble with the law.
Together with a number of collaborators, Fairey largely operated – very successfully indeed- outside of the traditional contemporary art circuit. His activities have varied from being commissioned to undertake designs for top musicians’ campaigns through to operating a new type of guerilla marketing agency, a natural commercial application of methods such as the stickers he has deployed to realize certain projects under his Obey umbrella.
Before the new current feeding frenzy, his work had already been well established for over a decade. For a long time it had been much sought after in the particular economies and circuits arising from street art scenes, graphic design circles and the various lifestyle iconographies they feed within the mainstream visual culture – for example promotion for music or trendy street brands. But, in 2008, Fairey’s pro-Obama poster campaign would bring him to the attention of strata within American society hitherto unlikely to engage with his work.
In effect, his assimilation into the mainstream art world is probably more accurately understood as the result of institutions eager to reconsider the impact of his practice on a larger culture than through needing to make use of the structures of the commercial gallery system. However, it must be noted that the critical reaction to his 2007 solo show at Jonathan LeVine’s ‘street art’ oriented gallery in New York indicated that the world of ‘high art’ was already eager to embrace his work before the Obama-related publicity.
There followed a key 2009 show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and the institutional interest in his work is evident in the collections that own it: The Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The Obama ‘Hope’ portrait, now at the centre of new level of legal problems that promise to eclipse Fairey’s ongoing wranglings with the law on graffiti-related charges, was acquired by the permanent collection of the US National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. in 2009.
Significantly, Fairey was also the artist selected for the final project at the iconic Deitch Projects prior to it wrapping up business following director Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment as the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.