Shepard Fairey at the ICA

First I have to say that Shepard Fairey’s exhibition at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art was better and more impressive than I expected it to be. The current exhibit at the ICA, “Supply and Demand”, is his first solo museum exhibition, it is expansive and pretty interesting. I think he is a very good graphic designer, capable of producing posters  and street art that is eye-catching, and occasionally witty. The references in his work are obvious: Warhol, Lichtenstein, posters of the Works Progress Administration (yes, Public Works rule), propaganda posters of the Hitler era, China and Russia, along with repeating patterns found on bank notes, buildings, newspapers, books etc etc.  The majority of the posters featured known faces and icons, from Warhol and Johnny Cash, to former and current Presidents, activists, musicians. I noticed repeated use of Joe Strummer’s face, and I would really like to know what Chomsky thought of the use of his image.

As I said Fairey is a very good graphic designer: his work is eye-catching, pretty geometric, with words and phrases that feel complementary to the image. Sometimes the collages feel overcrowded, which is the reason I didn’t like the Capitalism Good/Bad side posters, although I did enjoy the line “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one”. If I was thirteen Fairey would have been my favorite artist: pairing cool imagery with tongue-in-cheek one liners, presenting one as anti-establishment activist, while appropriately worshipping punk musicians…

The famous “Obama HOPE” poster is far more interesting up close: Obama’s image is pasted onto a collage of newspapers and it is feels less two-dimensional than it does on the computer screen. Of course this poster got so huge, that the Associated Press felt compelled to ask for credit and compensation for the copyrighted photo used on the poster, which was taken by Mannie Garcia, while on assignment for the AP. Garcia believes that heowns the copyright, and Fairey believes that his use of the photo is within the legal definition of fair use. This is what Garcia told the NYTimes:

I don’t condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet. But in this case I think it’s a very unique situation. If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had.

Exactly right. Garcia took this photo back in 2006 at the National Press Club in Washington at an event about Darfur. Obama seats next to George Clooney and is listening to the conservative Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Obama looks like he’s spacing out a little bit, like he’s thinking of something else. Then, Fairey took this photo, saw the potential in the lifted chin, manipulated the image while adding some simply cool graphics, and then added the word HOPE beneath, and right there it was when the plain photo transcended into a symbol. So, no, I do not think that Shepard plagiarized; he did appropriate the image, and then created something bigger. Of course he could have asked Garcia for permission, but right, why bother…

Also I did not like this accompanying description to the “Obama HOPE” poster at the exhibition:

Fairey renders Obama with his face slightly lifted, gazing into the distance with resolute optimism.

Uh, no, actually Fairey does NOT render Obama with his face slightly lifted, Obama is like that in the original photo that Garcia took. Who at the ICA wrote that stuff? The curator? That’s just blatantly wrong…

Anyway, Fairey is very much involved in marketing and the art of “selling stuff”. So capitalism has worked pretty well for him financially. Of course I read on the exhibition brochure that “Fairey and other street artists exploit the same system they are fighting against, generating profitable art and design to fund their less politically correct initiatives on city streets” (whatever that might be). Still I find it rather ironic when he tries to exude a sense of anti-establishment, anti-capitalism in his work, and when I see Bank of America, Levi’s, Hood and Karmaloop sponsoring his exhibition. “Supply and Demand” all right…

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2 thoughts on “Shepard Fairey at the ICA

  1. Pingback: My Year in Review « Acidgalore

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