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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shepard Fairey Retrospective Review

You can be certain that fans of ABC’s Lost will be found in front of their televisions on May 23rd, as the labyrinthine TV fantasy/sci-fi/adventure show wraps up its six-seasons-long narrative. Lost diehards are desperate for a conclusion that will bring closure to and make sense of countless loose ends that have frayed into an ever-more-complex knot of high-minded mysticism and philosophical allusion; anything less than an airtight explanation might suggest that the previous six years of their lives could have been better spent.

Personally, I hope that creators Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse have both the stomach and sense of humor to play a practical joke of epic proportions by tying everything up in a neat little package with a card that reads “It was all a dream.”

Locally, the ongoing Shepard Fairey retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center has made a splash with its own cocktail of ambitious subtexts, and I had the chance to follow the buzz and visit the show on Sunday of its opening weekend, with free admission offered as part of the Fine Arts Fund Sampler Weekend. I admired the boldness and the commitment of the artist to his purpose, as well as much of his technique, particularly in his large-scale murals: weathered textures and patchwork patterns abound.

The vast majority of the work in the two-floor exhibition belonged to Fairey’s on-going “Obey Giant“ project, done in service of one goal: to create a complex art-you-live aesthetic that changes the way audiences look at the rest of the world. Lofty stuff… yet, I could never shake the suspicion that there was far less going on intellectually than Fairey would have us believe.

Crowds outside the CAC for the Shepard Fairey opening night party - photos by Jeremy Mosher.

Premised on a head-scratching concept -- that a sticker of Andre the Giant that doesn’t appear to sell anything will make the public question the images around them -- Fairey has subsequently cited existential philosophy (in this case, Phenomenology) as the underpinning of his work, essentially evading explanation instead of offering clarification. As with Lost, rather than resolving tenuous connections between images or occurrences, we’re told to just keep digging deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole: the truth is there, have faith. What truth? And why not share it here? For that matter, when is Shepard Fairey? Well, you got me. But, if the meaning of a statement is elusive, it doesn't necessarily make the statement meaningful.

No, by invoking the terms “propaganda” and “dissent,” by using an Orwellian poli-speak in posters and incorporating an ever-widening range of historical and philosophical allusions, the Fairey retrospective merely trades in Big Ideas without really committing to any. It’s all sizzle, and the promise that maybe there is a steak in there if you look hard enough and can talk yourself into it. Ultimately, the work on display is far less nuanced than the politically- or commercially-charged imagery Fairey wants to call into question: neither as sneaky nor as clever as proper propaganda. “In lesser gods we trust?” Puke.

The line to get into the CAC wrapped around the block along Walnut Street - photos by Jeremy Mosher.

Still, if Fairey’s work is reductive and far less subversive than it aims to be, it remains extremely topical, and I’m thrilled to see the CAC book such a timely and interesting show: it’s the artist like Fairey that can move the arts into the fore of a city’s consciousness. Afforded the chance to see these much-talked-about, widely-popular works from our own day, I can’t recommend strongly enough that Cincinnatians take a visit to see what all the fuss is about.

But once you’re there… don’t believe the hype. If you look too hard for a satisfying explanation for the island, the jumps through time, and whatever else happened after I gave up on a game that couldn't be bothered to come up with any set rules, you might just make your head hurt.


Leiflet said...

i NEVER saw his work as anything other than "Oh, Andre the Giant is cool"... That being said, i really enjoy it optically. I think that's enough for me.

5chw4r7z said...

You lost me(lost, haha) when you said you hope Lost wraps up with a practical joke. What a chicken shit way out, thats the last thing I expect from an incredibly thought out and well written show.
Likewise with Fairey, don't you think his explantion of art is just another deception to make you think?
And clearly you have. But still you missed the point. There's no rabbit hole to go down, its right there on the surface and if you looked a little closer it would punch you in the face.
I was expecting his artwork to be one dimensional but what surprised me was the layering of media. I don't care what anyone says, he still has an artistic sense to pull all that together.

Randy Simes said...

Interesting review Jeremy. I found myself looking at his work and immediately coming up with my own narrative or explanation. It didn't take long, but my own thoughts often evolved into thoughts with much more depth than what I was originally struck.

There was in fact a time where I stopped and wondered to myself if I was reading into Fairey's work too much, and if he actually intended to create the depth of meaning I was experiencing. This is a question I can not answer, and will probably never have answered.

In the end though you're right that it's a fantastic exhibit with a tremendous drawing power for the CAC. I loved seeing the thousands of people there on opening night, and in the following days of opening weekend. It's also been fantastic to see people on their mural hunts around town and those that are seeing his murals for the first time and stop to pause and examine for themselves...almost certainly coming up with their own overly deep explanation of Fairey's work which then speaks to 5chw4r7z's point above.

Venkman said...

Interesting review. I foudn this bit interesting: "...Fairey has subsequently cited existential philosophy (in this case, Phenomenology) as the underpinning of his work..." I don't see how he can claim his work is inducing a phenomenological response in its viewers. Between giant Illustrator graphics and awkwardly accompanying text, it's just not there. I really don't think Heidegger would be a big Fairey fan.

My biggest critique lies with the graphics, however, because of the lack of creativity (see The creativity lies with the text and very minor graphical altercations, but they just aren't enough to make most of it interesting. What I do appreciate is his ability to market himself. 3/4 of "artists" today have no skill, just friends and the ability to sell themselves.

Zachary Schunn said...

With all due respect, I think you missed the point...

Most artwork is not meant to provide answers, but to provide questions. And while you were looking for the answers, you seemed to miss the questions.

Many people point to the "Andre the Giant" sticker as a "joke" of sorts... and you know what, it is. But the reason it caught so much attention when it originated was due to the questions it sparked. What is it? WHY is it?

The same with most of Fairey's work (some of his more recent political work, however, has become more agenda-based).

He cites repeatedly that his "OBEY" project is an experiment in Phenonemology. This is very much a continuation of the work of one of his idols--Andy Warhol. Warhol was famous for painting symbols and icons (Campbell's soup, Marilyn Monroe, etc.), largely in an attempt to question the media's obsession with pop culture.

Likewise, Fairey is calling into question our obsession with political and cultural symbols. His "OBEY" campaign is very much Orwellian. He is, in a sense, asking us to "obey" to a counter-culture that is meant to openly question our society's blind allegiance to certain cultural and political systems.

Thus, while he rarely sparks answers, he does spark interesting questions concerning phenomenology. While walking through the exhibit, I found myself asking such questions: "Why are birds--especially eagles--so often used as political symbols?", "Why is red such a powerful color, and used in such powerful symbols?", "Why are so many political movements given a 'good vs. evil' or 'black vs. white' context... i.e., capitalism vs. communism, left vs. right, etc.?", "Why does no one realize that these counter-movements are often, at their base, one and the same?" I could go on but you get the point.

Everyone's questions are different, but in the end the questions the work causes you to ask give you further insight into both your own personality and beliefs and the world around you.

Of course, that's just my interpretation. Feel free to differ.

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