After ‘Hope,’ and Lawsuit, Shepard Fairey Tries Damage Control
By JORI FINKELNOV. 3, 2017 (LINK)
LOS ANGELES — By just about any measure, it’s been a long time since the street artist Shepard Fairey managed to capture the optimism of Barack Obama’s candidacy in his “Hope” poster, the stylized portrait in red, white and blue tones that easily ranks as the most famous, also ubiquitous, artwork of 2008.
Mr. Fairey’s oldest daughter, then 2 years old, is now almost a teenager. The “Hope” image became the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit by The Associated Press that was both expensive and embarrassing for the artist. Mr. Fairey, who is 47, has since gone on to create art for activist movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March.
And now “Damaged” — his biggest gallery show yet, with about 200 new paintings, prints and illustrations made since 2015 — is set to open on Nov. 11 in a Chinatown warehouse, the same day a documentary on the artist has its premiere on Hulu. The mood of the exhibition: what happens when hope gets trampled but not killed.
“Our approach to the environment is damaged, our political system is damaged and our communication with each other — especially through social media — is deteriorating,” Mr. Fairey said, ticking off themes in his new work. “But this show is not all about me being angry and apocalyptic; I’m trying to diagnose problems and move forward.”
You could call it an attempt at damage control, something Mr. Fairey knows about firsthand. As the Hulu documentary by James Moll shows, Mr. Fairey has gone from great heights to dramatic lows in the last decade. He’s risen from cult figure to cultural reference point on “The Simpsons” to committing what he now calls his biggest blunder during the course of the A.P. lawsuit when he lied to his lawyers about exactly which A.P. photograph he used as the source of the “Hope” image and deleted files from his computer to cover up the truth.
So on top of settling the A.P. lawsuit in 2011 for an undisclosed amount, he ended up paying $25,000 in fines and serving a two-year probation for federal charges of tampering with evidence. Now, in the film, he is issuing his most public mea culpa, calling his lapse of judgment “the first time I felt so overwhelmed that I did something cowardly.”
During a recent interview at his studio north of downtown, where shelves were lined with spray paint cans and work tables were piled with stencils, Mr. Fairey explained, “I just panicked. I acted out of fear and vulnerability.” He added, “But I never lied under oath or in a deposition — I came forward to my lawyers first.”
His own sense of injustice has shaped many of his new, politically loaded artworks. Some take on the current administration’s efforts to restrict the flow of immigrants from certain countries. Others focus on what he sees as continuing Wall Street excesses and destructive environmental policies. He has also produced a newspaper for the show called “The Damaged Times,” containing his own art and fake ads, alongside articles he commissioned. The logo looks like it’s been sliced with a razor blade.
Still, much of the new work looks surprisingly friendly. Some mixed media paintings use rich blue and gold colors, not just his previous, propaganda-style palette of red and black. They incorporate floral patterns, not just news clippings. And they feature stylized or idealized images of women — African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American or Middle Eastern — that he hopes will drive home the point of the show.
“As angry as I am, I think that in times of division, scapegoating and hatefulness, it’s important to look for common humanity,” he said. “I think respecting human dignity is really punk rock right now.”
Wearing a black T-shirt that says “obey” above a gnarly face (a 2002 design from his Obey Clothing line), Mr. Fairey was flipping through a pile of acetate film sheets, called rubyliths, on which he creates his illustrations, carving them out with a stencil knife before screen printing. One shows a Coca-Cola bottle, the cursive lettering of its logo replaced with the words “Crude Oil” — a classic gesture by Mr. Fairey, who has often riffed on print advertising. “Within the art world, I get accused of being too obvious,” he quipped. “Within my world, I get accused of being too mysterious.”
Some of these images also appear in a 30-foot-long painting called “Wrong Path.” A woman with a sultry look in a bejeweled turban looms above a placard that reads: “Welcome Visitors! With a few exceptions!” The composition, he says, is mainly about “xenophobia and the contrast between encouraging tourism and discouraging immigration.” The piece consists of 12 canvases arranged together.
Why not make it as a single piece? “It will function as one huge piece in the show,” he said, “but it’s difficult to place a piece that large in someone’s collection.”
Many see such attention to sales and merchandising as a central fault line in the career of Frank Shepard Fairey, who began adapting his drawings for T-shirts and skateboard lines after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1992.
As his mainstream popularity has grown, his reputation within the street art community has suffered. “Shepard has had rock-star success, and part of the community that prides itself as indie, counterculture and anti-establishment feels betrayed that he’s become so successful,” said Pedro Alonzo, who co-curated the artist’s 2009 retrospective for the ICA Boston.
“When I did the Obama poster,” Mr. Fairey was quick to admit, “I gained a new audience and lost a lot of the old. I was seen as sucking up to the evil system.”
He’s even been accused of profiting from his critique of capitalism. His response was sharp: “Do you want me to work in a cafe saving my tips for two years and not facilitate these things, so you can cling to some romantic idea of sacrifice?”
Later, more calmly, he added: “I’m doing things that I feel are ethically consistent with the issues I care about. I’m working hard to support the right causes, treat my employees well and not be greedy.”
Mr. Fairey has donated money from the sales of his recent prints to Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Amplifier. He has also pledged 10 percent from the sales of specific paintings in the new show to these groups. (Mr. Fairey’s artworks are priced up to $100,000.)
He pointed out that he has built plenty of giveaways into the “Damaged” show, organized by the Detroit gallery Library Street Collective. He’s setting up a letterpress printer to make free copies of six artworks on select days. A set of lithographs made from stencil images will also be free for the taking — another small disruption to the normal workings of the art market.
Flaunting the rules has been one of his favorite sports from the start. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., where his father is a family physician, he fell for the rebellious attitude of punk music and skateboarding culture while a teenager. (He took the title “Damaged” from the 1981 Black Flag album.)
In 1989, still in college, he created his first meme-worthy artwork: a sticker showing the wrestler André René Roussimoff, known as Andre the Giant. It read: “Andre the Giant has a posse.” He plastered them throughout the streets of New York, Providence, R.I., and other cities.
Compactly built, Mr. Fairey looks like he could have been a wrestler in high school, but he had no interest in the sport. He was drawn to the sheer weirdness of the Andre image, which he later developed into an abstracted face.
He began using the commands “OBEY” and “OBEY GIANT” in stickers and posters, hoping to incite “feelings of disobedience,” he said. The images caught on and helped him land him his first solo show at CBGB gallery in the ’90s. Jeffrey Deitch, who gave him a solo show in 2010 at Deitch Projects, calls the Obey campaign prescient. “What might have seemed cartoony or fun at first,” Mr. Deitch said, has grown into “something serious that feels especially relevant today — with a very important message about an encroaching authoritarianism.”
Mr. Alonzo, the curator, calls the artist’s sticker campaign “pioneering,” adding that it offered Mr. Fairey “a means to produce, disseminate and promote” his own images in the public sphere before “the viral dissemination of imagery we associate with 21st-century social media.”
As a result of his street campaigns Mr. Fairey has been arrested 18 times for vandalism or related charges. He extended his left palm to reveal a scar near his wrist. He said it was from handcuffs fastened so tight in 2003 that they dug into his flesh.
So far he has pleaded guilty to various misdemeanors, but a felony case is still pending over the defacement of multiple buildings in Detroit with Andre-type images in 2015, when Mr. Fairey had a show in the city. A Wayne County circuit judge dismissed the charges last year; that ruling is now under appeal by the city. Mr. Fairey declined to comment on the case or even confirm whether he made those artworks.
But given his history, it seemed fair to ask: Will your new exhibition spill out into the streets of Los Angeles?
He mentioned plans for a small mural on the back of the Chinatown building and a billboard inside it. But he would not say whether he is planning any unauthorized work in the streets. “Based on my experience,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “that’s a question I would be smart not to answer.”