More than a week after the outrageously crowded May Day opening, Shepard Fairey’s show at Deitch Projects is still somewhat of a circus. “It’s been the busiest week of my life,” said one of the gallery directors as she simultaneously fielded questions about still-available work from several parties of interested buyers, stapled checklists, and answered emails. As the last show at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery before he makes the move to LA to assume the directorship of LAMOCA, May Day was destined to make a strong impression, attracting huge numbers and plenty of buyers, as well as scorn from disgruntled haters and building code enforcers.
With Shepard Fairey, you either HATE him immensely or LOVE everything he does. Standing at the site of the massive mural on Houston and Bowery for just a few minutes I overheard a range of opinions from “This is absolutely great,” to “This is just a giant advertisement and it makes me sick.” Nobody walked by disinterested—everybody had an opinion. The mural has already been the site of attacks, not only by the spray can, but also of the hurled brick sort. None of this is new—he’s been accused of being an “out of touch artist” by at least one objector on one of his Williamsburg paste-ups—but in this case the offending remarks have been painstakingly removed. When I visited, someone had just installed this plea:
So what is Shepard Fairey? A revolutionary artist and political propagandist? Or an “out of touch artist”, a mere “tracer” and plagiarist? A fighter for free speech or a hypocrite and sell-out?
One of the greater thematic concerns for the show, that of free speech, is announced at the entrance to the exhibition at Deitch by a remarkable found object—a vintage megaphone, ready for soap box polemics, replete with OBEY stencil. The megaphone reappears in the mural piece, urging the viewer (consumer) to ‘Amplify YOUR Voice’. The message seems clear enough, but is problematized by other works that pass seamlessly into a more ironic voice, such as ‘Never Trust Your Own Eyes, Believe What You Are Told.' It also feels a bit forced when the free speech being advocated is then removed off of the out door mural, like any other piece of private property.
But perhaps what surprises me most about Shepard Fairey is his unexpected moments of genuineness, which is not what one has come to expect from the street art era, especially from an artist who began his career with the ambiguous non-message ‘phenomenology’ of Andre the Giant. We’re more prepared for ironic snarkiness than sincerely held political beliefs—in fact we’ve come to distrust genuine belief. Anybody who really speaks their mind rather than using ironic codes is not to be trusted, or is out only for the money, is a sell-out, or is too preachy.
Some of the political content in the show is indeed too preachy, such as the flimsy critique against the two-party system (wallpaper with elephants and donkeys?) and global warming. But where it seems quite heartfelt, and perhaps works the most, is in his portraits of the likes of Cash, Nico, Basquiat, Dylan, Hendrix, Iggy, John and Yoko, stenciled from famous photos. These aren’t just celebrity portraits, they are celebratory portraits, and contain surprising depth and texture for the nation’s premier icon-maker and sloganeer. The attention to detail in the underlayer of vintage newspapers is rewarding to inspect and dispels their propensity to otherwise look like dorm-room posters.
Here Shepard Fairey explores the subject of cult celebrity—those who “started out on the margins of culture and ended up changing the mainstream”—at the very moment that he is becoming just that. Of course, most of the recording artists he pays tribute to, once well within the mainstream (if they lived to see it) didn’t produce work of the same caliber that launched them to cult celebrity status in the first place. You’d only play Iggy’s newest album maybe once, but Search and Destroy still sounds revolutionary. But even though Iggy’s latest work might sort of suck, you’d still pay to see him in concert today. The same goes for Shepard Fairey: his most innovative work might be behind him, but he is still a Giant, and you’ll still go see his shows.
(Images: Shepard Fairey's outdoor mural with "Please No Graffiti" sign, photo by Natalie Hegert. Shepard Fairey, May Day, Installation view, Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street, May 1 - 29, 2010. Shepard Fairey, May Day, Installation view, Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street, May 1 - 29, 2010, Photo credit: Adam Reich.)