Friday, February 27, 2009

Shepard Fairey at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Excellent exhibit all around: great works presented well.

1. All the way through (and it’s a large exhibit), I was struggling with Fairey’s work on a conceptual level. I get that he’s trying to sensitize us to the controlling messages that capitalism surrounds us with; I get that the Obey Giant is making explicit the propagandistic nature of advertising. We’re meant to come away from Fairey’s work questioning what we’re told.

But this just reminded me of one of my favorite t-shirts from the ‘80s: it said in big block letters “question authority,” and then below it was scrawled, “why?”

That is, I think Fairey’s determination to undermine authoritarian iconography sits uneasily next to his obvious political motivation. His work pushes a specific set of leftist (that’s the right word for his style, at least: not liberal, not progressive, not big-d Democratic, but old-skool leftist) opinions. More to the point, his work mobilizes in support of these opinions all his considerable skill at manipulating imagery.

Cool is a dictator, he’s saying. But he’s also using cool to push his leftist ideas. Doesn’t that make him a dictator, too? Obviously it does. Doesn’t that undermine his message - both his question-authority message and his leftist message?

Obviously it does. Let’s take an example that doesn’t have much to do with politics. One room of the exhibit focused on his music-celebrity related work: it has the Zeppelin album cover, the Jane’s Addiction concert poster, and a series of portraits of punk and rap stars. This series comes complete with (the wall text informs us) a playlist “curated” by the artist himself. In other words, if you want to be cool like Shepard Fairey, here’s what you listen to.

If you’ve been paying attention at all through the previous rooms, your bile is going to rise when you get to this one. Like, I’m really supposed to like Joe Strummer and Biggie just because Shepard Fairey does? As it happens, I really do like the Clash – but for the five minutes I spent in that room, I hated them.

The question is, is Fairey aware of this contradiction in his work? Are we supposed to be wary of his political message – are we supposed to stand back and see it as an example of propaganda to be distrusted? Or does he not get this, and seriously expect us to reject all authority but his own? After all, how manyquestion authorityt-shirts do you see without the “why”?

For the record, I think he is aware. He can’t not be. I think we’re supposed to struggle with the political message, to realize that even the most laudable expression of ideals (if you find his political ideals laudable, which I mostly do) can all too easily shade into authoritarianism. The protest sign can always turn into a control mechanism.

Does this neutralize his political message altogether, then? I don’t think so. He’s so consistently leftist in his message that I think he’s hoping it can get through, somehow. And this is maybe what I find most compelling about his work. All propaganda is suspect, and all ideologies that utilize propaganda are trying to control you: but he doesn’t let that excuse him from taking a stand. It makes his stand an extremely tortured one, undercut at every turn (I think) by his suspicion of his own authority, but it’s a stand nonetheless.

I don’t think he’s solved the dilemma. There are always going to be people who adopt Fairey’s political stances simply because it’s cool to do so – because he, along with Strummer, Biggie, and the other beautiful people on his playlist, have made leftist politics cool. People who won’t see the contradictions in his work. People who think “question authority” simply means “épater la bourgeosie.” No matter how carefully he balances his images, some people will allow themselves to be manipulated by them.

2. The other thing I was doing all the way through the exhibit was getting off on how cool his work is. Undeniably. He’s got a great design sense.

I was particularly glad to see this stuff in a museum, because he really rises to the occasion. His most famous work is in posters, designed to be seen from a distance, surrounded by (or covered with) graffiti and/or other posters, or (increasingly) seen on computer screens. In those contexts you get to appreciate his mastery of color and form and context, and maybe not much else.

But a lot of the work on the walls of the museum was incredibly textured. A lot of the pieces were his familiar iconography executed on a background of, for example, vintage newspaper clippings or scraps of wallpaper, making for a very delicate and multilayered work that would be hard to pull off on a brick wall or t-shirt. And some of these works are huge, allowing him space to recycle some of his own iconography (various manifestations of his Obey logos) as if they were benday dots, or pastiches of ancient wallpaper designs.

I found these recent works – the ones whose main motif is the soldier girl, the woman in her hijab (see the ICA's page), or the boy with the rifle – to be the most powerful. Partly because of what I just discussed, the intricate texturing with which they’re executed, resulting in (among other things) this overwhelming demonstration of how all iconography, maybe all ideology, is recycling other iconography or ideology. An empire of signs, indeed.

But I also loved these works because of their sheer beauty. They’re rich in the aesthetic qualities that make us glory in art: color, shape, texture, motion, balance, etc., etc. For an art that uses socialist realism as its foundation, Fairey’s work provides a pretty decadent level of pleasure. But there he goes undercutting his message again – it’s really hard to remember the Viet Cong girl is supposed to inspire you to realize a socialist utopia when he’s got you dreaming about picnicking with her in a field of daisies…

P.S. Yes, the Obama poster is there, or rather one version of it, a version that works better for a museum show than it would have for a campaign. And, speaking of the Obama poster, this is pretty funny.

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