Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More on Shepard Fairey

It's a shame that this poster will probably become a symbol of the times, because the artist -- or maybe it's more accurate to say the graphic designer -- who created it doesn't need any more attention than he's already getting. He's the subject of an exhibition currently showing at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

To call Shepard Fairey's art political would be a stretch; the style is derivative and the images are often borrowed. The messages on some of his posters ("The limits of tyrants are prescribed by those whom they oppress," an unattributed Frederick Douglass quote, or "Obey, consume, repeat") become empty slogans when he uses them; his posters are too precious, like posed portraits of teen idols pinned to the walls of a young girl's bedroom.

It is the art of cultural references, and it shows less originality than collage. Still, Fairey has a good eye for color and composition. He might be a great concert poster maker if he had more imagination. I call him a designer because he needs the focus of a client to fill his idea void.

The Obama poster to me is too easy. Who (aside the from the obvious haters) could disagree with its message? After my anti-Shepard Fairey post last month (see Shepard Fairey's Sell Out is Complete), I was pleased to see another take on the Fairey phenomenon from the Tomorrow Museum blog. Joanne McNeil writes that the Obama poster lacks a point of view, and compares it to a more daring Hillary Clinton poster (by screenwriter and designer Tony Puryear).

Everything McNeil says is true:
"Puryear is also taking inspiration from propaganda posters, but by using a photograph, rather than illustration, it moves beyond its source. It mocks the Communist propaganda that was the inspiration. You can see the lines on Clinton’s face, she looks relaxed. She radiates warmth as much as power and intellect. She’s a human being, not an icon."
...and yet Fairey's poster still looks better. Maybe it's because Puryear's poster is too ironic to be used as a real campaign poster. Fairey's is so earnest -- as McNeil said, "[Obama] is captured exactly as we like to think of him: looking caring, but just a bit distant and analytical" -- that it fits in with the "safe" sort of campaign pieces we are used to these days.

To me, Fairey is the Whole Foods of street art: he talks the talk, but there is no true feeling but opportunism and profit behind it.

He's like a Quentin Tarantino: an artful re-arranger of existing pieces. The results may be enjoyable, and the sentiments expressed may be agreeable, but neither Fairey nor Tarantino advance causes or create new art.

Political art ain't easy. Take this piece by the sculptor Richard Serra. "Stop Bush," a lithocrayon on mylar piece from 2004 is embarrassingly earnest. It calls to mind the old advice to writers: show, don't tell. It appeared at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. He should have stuck to his steel plates.

I think this bus stop defacing (San Francisco, 2002) is a much more inventive and thoughtful anti-Bush political statement.

It's from a rather lofty and annoying-sounding group called "Together We Can Defeat Capitalism," but it uses the same message and puts it front of real people instead of cooping it up in a gallery or a museum. Or instead of charging $40 for it (the price of a 24x36 signed Obama Hope poster) in the e-commerce section of a "street" artist's website.

McNeil's comparison of Shepard Fairey to the British street artist Bansky is apt:
"But Banksy couldn’t possibly create work as moving as he does without staying well-informed of politics. Fairey’s work makes you wonder if he even quite knows what’s going on in the Middle East or what Guantánamo Bay even is. What Fairey communicates about politics is apathy and a vague directionless feeling of dissent. The ornate details that set him apart may add prettiness but no depth to his work."
While we run into the same e-commerce issues with Banksy -- street art and political art suddenly made into collectibles -- he's a better artist on every level.

Here's a piece he did on the side of a building in New York:

It gleefully compares graffiti to cave painting (those look like the horses from Lascaux). Banksy's illegal pieces are almost always thoughtful and well-executed. He's witty, where Fairey is self-promotional.

Back to Fairey. The New Yorker's art critic Peter Schjeldahl reviewed his Boston show in a recent issue. At first I though Schjeldahl was being too gentle. He went on a bit long about Fairey's trouble with the Associated Press over the Obama photo he appropriated for the Hope poster (like Schjeldahl, I will defend Fairey's right to appropriate it -- at least to some extent). But he finally got to the criticism toward the end:
"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.'”
This is why Banksy is the more successful artist to me: commerce is (or seems to be) a sideline to his art, which seems to be created out of obsession rather than a juvenile need to see one's tag everywhere.



Anonymous Steph said...

Very interesting, I just read that New Yorker piece.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Mr. Christopher said...

I'm listening to Shepard on a recent NPR podcast this morning. What an overrated, name-dropping, non-systematic featherweight.

11:47 AM  

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