It was only about a year ago, though it feels like half a lifetime, that Shepard Fairey created the most efficacious American political illustration since “Uncle Sam Wants You”: the Obama “Hope” poster. In innumerable variants, the craning, intent, elegant mien of the candidate engulfed the planet. I won’t forget coming across it, last summer, stencilled on a sidewalk of a hamlet in the upper Catskills, where cell phones don’t work and most people, if they vote at all, vote Republican. Underfoot, the small, tidy image organized its rustic environs as a frame for itself, like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee. I was delighted, as an Obama supporter. But I was a trifle disturbed, too, by the intrusion on a tranquil—and, it suddenly proved, defenseless—reality of weathered houses amid humpback mountains. The result was strident and mystical, yanking my mind into a placeless jet stream of abstract associations. It exploited a familiar graphic device—exalted and refined by Andy Warhol—of polarizing photographs into solid darks and blank lights, thus rendering volumetric subjects dead flat. Mentally restoring those splotches to rounded substance makes us feel clever, on the important condition that the subject excites us enough to elicit the effort. The reward with Fairey’s picture was a thrill of concerted purpose, guarded against fatuity by coolly candid deliberation. The effect is that of epic poetry in an everyday tongue.
A “Hope” poster hangs alongside about two hundred and fifty slick and, for the most part, far more resistible works in a Fairey retrospective, his first, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in Boston. The thirty-nine-year-old Fairey, a Los Angeles-based street artist, graphic designer, and entrepreneur, was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father is a doctor. At fourteen, Fairey, a budding rascal, started decorating skateboards and T-shirts. He graduated from the technically rigorous Rhode Island School of Design with a bachelor’s degree in illustration, in 1992. While a student in Providence, he took to applying gnomic stickers and posters, without permission, to buildings and signs. The signature image of his street work is the cartooned face of the wrestler Andre the Giant (André René Roussimoff, who died in 1993, and is fondly remembered for his role in the 1987 film “The Princess Bride”), accompanied at first by the wacky caption “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” and later by “Obey Giant” or, simply, “Obey.” Lyrically paranoid, the motif was inspired by the artist’s reading of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984”—a connection that looped back to the source last year when Penguin U.K. reissued those books with new cover designs, by Fairey. Fairey’s street work popularized a going fashion for academic deconstruction, with pretensions to exposing the malign operations of mass culture. Hip rather than populist, the Andre campaign projects an audience dumb enough to fall for media manipulation while smart enough to absorb a critique of it. And, of course, it’s vandalism—in the vein of urban graffiti—invading environments whose inhabitants, for all any artist knows, might value them just as they are. Boston’s I.C.A. has condoned a citywide smattering of street art by Fairey, as an extension of the show. That makes sense. So does the decision of the Boston police to arrest him for it, on his way to the show’s opening.
Fairey’s cover for a 2008 British edition of Orwell’s novel, which he cites as an inspiration Photograph from Penguin Books
Photograph from Penguin Books
Fairey has run into a similarly predictable legal snarl with the “Hope” poster, having lifted the image from an Associated Press photograph. The original shows Obama seated at a dais (next to George Clooney) at the National Press Club, in 2006, and attending to a speaker who stands outside the frame, to his left. Knowing this rather deflates the mystery of an expression that has suggested, to some, a visionary surveying the future. Obama listens, merely, with a grimly amused concentration that may be explained by the identity of the speaker, the conservative Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas. Anyhow, with the A.P. seeking compensation for copyright infringement, the artist has sued for a judicial ruling of fair use. This audacious counterattack aside, the general issue is an old story of our litigious republic. Appropriative artists, including David Salle, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince, have been sued at intervals since Campbell’s soup went after Warhol, in 1962 (but then thought better of it).
As an art maven, I’m for granting artists blanket liberty to play with any existing image. I also realize that it is not going to happen, and I’m bored by the kerfuffle’s rote recurrence, with its all but scripted lines for plaintiff and defendant alike. It is of a piece with Fairey’s energetic but unoriginal enterprise involving a repertoire of well-worn provocations—imitations of Soviet agitprop on shopping bags designed for Saks, to cite one example. Warhol sublimely commodified images of Mao and the hammer and sickle four decades ago, in keeping with an ambition—to infuse subjects and tones of common culture with powers of high art—that has not grown old. Warhol’s revelatory games with the cognitive dissonance between art and commerce have galvanized artists in every generation since. But you can stretch a frisson just so many times before it goes limp. Like the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who included a Louis Vuitton boutique in his Los Angeles retrospective, Fairey reverses a revolution achieved by Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein. He embraces a trend in what the critic Dave Hickey has called “pop masquerading as art, as opposed to art masquerading as pop.”
The aesthetics of Fairey’s Boston show are formulaic, but they exercise immediate power. He is a terrific designer. His screenprints on paper, canvas, plastic, and metal, from found photographs and illustrations—publicity portraits, vintage advertising and propaganda, historical icons (Patty Hearst with a machine gun), satirically altered cash and stock certificates—deploy a standard palette of acrid red, yellowish white, and black. (The red, white, and blue of “Hope” were an ad-hoc departure.) Often, the images are overlaid on printed or collaged grounds of wallpaperlike pattern or fragments of newspaper pages, which impart a palimpsestic texture and a flavor of antiquity. Fairey’s stylistic borrowings from Russian Revolutionary, Soviet, and W.P.A. propaganda are often remarked upon, but borrowedness itself—studied anachronism—is his mode of seduction. His style’s old-timey charm, however, is not inexhaustible. That leaves the inherent attraction of his subjects and of his selection of ready-made images to represent them. These include, besides mainstream heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali, Che, Fidel, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, generic freedom fighters, and “revolutionary women.” Punks abound: Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop. Let George W. Bush pictured as a vampire exemplify the calibre of Fairey’s many satirical japes.
Fairey has said that the real message behind his work is “Question everything.” I question the I.C.A. director Jill Medvedow’s claim, in the show’s catalogue, that Fairey pursues a “quest to challenge the status quo and disrupt our sense of complacency through his art.” What isn’t status quo about political rage? And have you met anyone not heavily medicated who strikes you as complacent lately? The retrospective is dated on arrival. Oddly, Fairey’s splendid tour de force for Obama anticipated a new national mood, of serious-minded pragmatism, which makes ideological extremes seem sort of quaint. I found myself regarding the show as strangely wholesome, like a vaccine that defeats the virus it imitates. It’s as if Fairey meant to ridicule rebellion. I’m not sure he knows what he meant, beyond wanting to get a rise out of people. But if he did know—that is, if he were a better artist—he probably could not have helped change the world with one magically ambiguous picture. ♦