Shepard Fairey

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Shepard Fairey, Power and the Glory 1, 2013
Shepard Fairey, Power and the Glory 1, 2013. Courtesy: Paul Stolper Gallery, London

In 2008 Shepard Fairey stunned the art world and the political classes with the success of his Obama Hope art print. Its impact helped inspire a grassroots political movement that—united under policies of inclusion, change and positivity—voted in a young African-American man into the White House. Now a very different sentiment is sweeping through North America. President Donald Trump’s first day in office was met with an “art strike” by a generation of cultural torchbearers and Women’s Marches took place across many of the world’s major cities.
We take a closer look at the American way of life and its democratic processes through the artworks of one of its greatest and most influential social commentators, Shepard Fairey. An artist who has consistently scrutinized the imagery and idealism of the western world, exposing its underlying deceptions often through appropriating advertisements that reinforce its ideology.

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Obey Mr President
Donald Trump came to power on a wave of controversy and tumult, a new President ready to attack the political elites and end the plight of the “forgotten” Americans who have seen their wealth “ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.” Was this a means to manipulate a marginalized electorate to win support? Or will his policies, as many believe, bring “disaster for the white working class, the white poor, and every other economically struggling person in America.” Shepard Fairey’s art print Big Brother Is Watching You, 2006 features the face of Andre the Giant, the enormous 2-meter tall wrestler whose face adorned his notorious sticker campaign of the late 1980s. Begun while still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, the young artist was awarded a grade A for the assignment. Later he would add the word “Obey” in a sarcastic statement about America’s excessive consumerist culture. The unprecedented success of the campaign brought Fairey overnight recognition. Embodying the symbolic message “question everything”, they became synonymous with resistance to authority figures of all kinds and remain the most iconic images of 1990s urban art.

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Shepard Fairey has been accused of selling out by many in the street art scene, but the artist is always quick to retort that many pop artists have toyed with ideas of commercialism, advertising and appropriation—Andy Warhol built a rather successful career on it. Questions over credibility often dog an artist who has managed to successfully straddle the street art and gallery scenes. However, unlike street artist Banksy, Fairey hides in plain sight, fly posting his art work without disguising himself—so far he has been arrested over 15 times.

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Human Ignorance
Presidential Seal Red, 2007 is a blistering attack on the double standards of the U.S. Government. For many years Fairey has expressed concern with the finance structure of the campaign, which distorts democracy by allowing corporate interests to be “put before the interests of the average person.” The famous motto “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, one) has been replaced with “In Lesser Gods We Trust”, with the eagle carrying a missile in one foot and a withered branch in the other.
Shepard Fairey has always taken immense delight in undermining the position of the powerful and the bullish and asserting the spirit of the underdog and the oppressed. In Arab Woman (Gold), 2008 Fairey puts an often maligned figure in American life center stage. Once again the insertion of the Fairey’s trademark “Obey” emblem is a challenge to those easily swayed by nationalistic language, a reminder to those who perhaps believe “American concepts only represent one narrow way of thinking.” Muslims have been targeted by Trump on numerous occasions in his campaign speeches, not least in Minnesota where he declared the Somali-American community as a “disaster” for the state.
Israel / Palestine, 2009 is an ambiguous take on the conflict which has long divided the opinion of the western world. In the middle of the art print a women wearing a Hijab peers out fearfully, reminding us all of the non-combatants caught up in the long, bitter dispute. The divided curtains are emblematic of the obfuscation that surrounds the historic origins of the war. Each side of the curtain is once again embellished with Fairey’s trademark Obey design in contrasting white and red and black and red.

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Propaganda
The recent American election saw the political parties making use of “alternative facts” to propagate a false viewpoint. The manipulation and misuse of facts has become the propaganda of the 21st century—part of an alarming and growing trend towards post-truth politics.
Fairey is not adverse to making use of propaganda himself. Drawing on historic posters he takes the image out of context and frustrates the viewer who are unused to seeing propaganda material without its original motive. Chinese Soldiers, 2006 draws from a historic Communist Chinese poster, the impact of the original poster is stunted by the artist who features a rose emerging from out of the soldier’s gun. Above the soldiers a dove of peace radiates beams of light like the sun.

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The street artist’s prints are designed to amuse, educate, unnerve but always provoke. The highly stylized Peace & Justice Woman, 2013, takes its cues from popular culture and draws inspiration from a Hollywood movie poster. The biting sardonic spirit so evident in much of his work is put to one side here in a plea for justice and peace. Although Andre the Giant’s face is embedded in the work, the central position is occupied by the emblem for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
At a time of immense political upheaval, the dissenting voice of Shepard Fairey can do much to stem the rise of human ignorance and reveal the malpractice of corporate culture and the underlying cruelty embedded in the status quo. He has long held a strident voice in urban art, creating many of the most famous street images in history—when he works the world is forced to listen.