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Leader of a brand

Shepard Fairey, who's had political and commercial success, receives

March 23, 2009|Christopher Knight ART CRITIC

BOSTON — Shepard Fairey is a talented Los Angeles graphic designer who has twice hit the big time with the public. Provocative connections between the two episodes emerge from a survey of Fairey's work at the Institute of Contemporary Art. So do the rather stark limitations of his work.

Fairey's first impact was commercial -- "Obey Giant," a 1989 street-art project that grew into a thriving youth-market business in stickers, posters, apparel, notebooks and other retail products. His second was political -- a 2008 poster, made independently to support Barack Obama's presidential aspirations, that was quickly embraced by the candidate and an ever-widening cadre of supporters.

"Obey Giant" became a cash cow. "Obama Hope" became the successful campaign's defining image.

The 39-year-old designer on view in the ICA's "Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand" possesses a limited pictorial vocabulary, while the grandest curatorial claims made for the nearly 250 examples in the galleries are unsupportable. But the 20-year success of "Obey Giant" can't be denied, nor can the efficacy of its strategies in establishing "Obama Hope" in the public consciousness. If neither adds up to major art or effective counterculture politics, both are plainly worth considering.

Visually and conceptually, Fairey's work is to graphic design what sampling is to pop music. His catalog of fragmentary sources includes Russian Constructivist propaganda (Varvara Stepanova, the Stenberg brothers, Alexander Rodchenko), Andy Warhol's high-contrast silk-screen technique, anonymous news photographs (using an Associated Press photo of Obama has gen- erated a lawsuit), American government-issue engravings (stamps, currency, pamphlets), Barbara Kruger's red-white-and-black Minimalist images with text, psychedelic advertising, Mexico's Popular Graphics Workshop from the 1940s, Cold War commercials and much more.

All are populist forms. Fairey appropriates, fragments, combines and colors them, usually as screenprints and occasionally with the addition of hand-painting. Sometimes he prints on white or off-white paper. More interesting are the prints made on newsprint overlaid with decorative patterning.

Mystery subculture

These surfaces have a nostalgic aura. Musty and domestic, like something half-remembered from childhood visits to Grandma's house, they recall old-fashioned wallpaper in faded rooms. The aroma of ruin and decay is enhanced by tattered elements of collage.

"Obey Giant" began when Fairey, born in South Carolina, was a 19-year-old student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, 50 miles south of Boston. He made black-and-white stickers featuring an offset portrait of a 520-pound, 7-foot-4 professional wrestler, plus the legend "Andre the Giant has a posse." Fairey and friends plastered the stickers on any available surface -- store windows, phone booths, walls, fences. The preteen sticker-mania of the 1980s got mashed into the era's blue-nose warning labels for record albums, and something wonderfully weird was born.

If you knew who Andre was, you could accept or reject being in his posse -- his fan club. If you didn't know, you were left to wonder what the mystery subculture was about.

Eventually the image got refined. A flat, high-contrast icon in black ink on white rises above the single word "OBEY" set against a bright red ground. With variations, that later became the Obama motif.

The inspiration for "Obey Giant" was John Carpenter's 1988 comedy-cum-sci-fi thriller "They Live," a Reagan-era movie in which the American ruling class was actually composed of aliens, who retained wealth and power through exploitation of subliminal advertising. The film's dark hero, George Nada -- played by pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper -- discovers a pair of magic sunglasses that, when worn, allows him to see the word "obey" hidden in every commercial billboard on the street.

What did Fairey's "Obey Giant" mean? Nothing, really -- or, in keeping with Carpenter's symbolism, nada. The stickers and posters are the public expression of a private enthusiasm, uttered freely and without social permission from authorities in an arena usually reserved for sale to business. In trickle-down America, that was enough.

Question answered

Emily Moore Brouillet, the show's co-curator (with Pedro H. Alonzo), writes in the big catalog: "Obey Giant utilizes the language and aesthetics of advertising, yet advertises nothing." She's half-right. Back when Fairey was unknown, the imagery did possess the power to confuse -- to create the simple question "What's that?" in a viewer's mind. The absence of an obvious answer, alien to almost all graphic imagery that washes over us in public every day, caused a brain ripple.

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