That the work of Shepard Fairey suddenly finds itself in a storm of publicity––from GQ to the New York Times––seems not only preordained but a bit tautological. For Fairey’s work began as a germ of ubiquitous, “viral” publicity, in the legendary form of small stickers depicting the mug of Andre the Giant, a former pro-wrestling phenomenon. ANDRE THE GIANT HAS A POSSE, announced these enigmatic decals, plastered in the most unlikely of places by a seemingly anonymous army in the early 1990s. (When someone offered one to me fifteen years ago, I duly placed it on my notebook. There was a strange thrill––mixed with misgiving––at being part of a nameless posse headed by a melancholic giant.) But suspicions that this phenomenon entailed more Big Brother than brotherly love have been dispelled. Fairey’s anonymity has crystallized into a multifaceted enterprise––including a clothing line and graphic-design company––recently punctuated on an even grander scale by the artist’s poster featuring (presidential candidate) Barack Obama. Fairey and his company, Obey Giant, are now embroiled in a lawsuit over the artist’s use of an Associated Press photograph as the basis for his poster.
His batiklike collages most often reveal newsprint barely poking through their figures’ creamy skin. Aside from the history of political posters, Fairey’s work finds its most obvious affinities with Haring and Basquiat, on the one hand, and Murakami, Lichtenstein, and Warhol (of whose “Marilyn” series Fairey has duly printed a “Giant” version) on the other. His use of bold black outlines, large scale, and increasingly Pop-ish composition also conjures Gilbert and George, though to more expressly ideological ends. The prankish aphorisms that pepper his imagery have gained poignancy in light of the economic crisis. His series “Two Sides of Capitalism,” 2007, plays on the iconography of American money; the tags OBEDIENCE IS THE MOST VALUABLE CURRENCY and RANSOM NOTE replace the usual pecuniary axioms found on bills. But these latter works are owned and sold by the Jonathan Levine Gallery––hardly a bastion of anticapitalist radicalism. Fairey was recently hired by Saks Fifth Avenue to design bags and advertisements in a pastiche of Russian Constructivist style, raising further questions about the blend of earnestness and irony in his work. In that vein, a few (clearly faux and sanitized) plastic newspaper racks sit in the lobby of the ICA, perhaps seeking to stir up the urban grittiness inevitably drained when Fairey is museumified. This gambit only calls further attention, although perhaps not in the way anticipated, to the important meta-questions that the show raises about commodification and activism, institutional critique and critical success.