A Shepard and His Sheep: Shepard Fairey Instructs Pittsburgh to Obey


On Oct. 17, street artist Shepard Fairey opened a massive retrospective exhibition at Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum. "Supply and Demand" drew a sold-out opening night crowd that watched Fairey DJ alongside Z-Trip while sporting a swank three-piece suit.

In the months prior, Fairey and his team toured around Pittsburgh wheat-pasting his familiar designs on building facades both permitted and not, and across from the museum he installed a temporary mural over the top of a pre-existing mural by a younger local artist. The silent, creeping presence of Fairey's designs around the city felt eerily similar to the lead-up to the G-20 summit this past September, in which faceless PR firms delivered meaningless graphics touting business and lifestyle opportunities to dozens of vacant storefronts in downtown in an attempt to scrub the visual landscape. All of this new wallpaper gave an impending and queasy feeling to anyone paying attention: Pittsburgh, once again, and without consent, would play host as a playground for the powerful.

Fairey is one of the most recognized designers in the United States today, and the litigation surrounding him and the image sourcing for his art is a circus of its own. Most bizarrely for Pittsburghers (and anyone else who noticed), this spring, local designer Larkin Werner was sent a "cease and desist" (later rescinded) by Fairey's legal team over the use of the word "Obey" in conjunction with the homespun "Steelerbaby" Kewpie doll for sale on the Internet. That, as well as prior stumbles in image use and Fairey's latest snafu with the Associated Press, has highlighted some interesting points about Fairey's privilege as a celebrity and artistic image sourcing in general. Many have been quick to smirk at the perceived appropriateness of Fairey's work in a museum dedicated to Andy Warhol, himself a controversial, multi-disciplinary artist with a mind for business. In fact, the museum has a history of consistently bringing stimulating and provocative content to Pittsburgh with an acute sense of history and context. In the case of "Supply and Demand,” however, the whole drum roll and presentation feels scripted and aloof.

On top of the absurd legal battles keeping Shepard Fairey's lawyers and critics busy, a wealth of debate about whether or not the artist's work is "fair use" or even "plagiarism" has been steadily sprouting on blogs (like Justseeds') for some time. Often, the accusations fly from the keyboards of other artists, particularly printmakers who consider themselves more engaged in social justice work than Fairey appears to be. It's easy to come off as jealous and spiteful "haters,” but as printmakers, perhaps what we want most from Fairey as a "political" artist – and don't get – is an analysis of capitalism and its ills that aligns with our own. We want to look at his work, with its alluring red and black imagery, apparently focused signifiers and "underground" origins, and find an ally in this struggle.

But we don't find that ally in Shepard Fairey. Instead we find a depoliticized and fairly macho entrepreneur, throwing history in our faces and proving to us that, quite frankly, it's easy as hell to make a nice profit off of the "look" of something. If anything smarts more than the annoying sting of Fairey's slick fashion line or the Fuji/Obey track bike, it might just be the sickening feeling of watching someone like Fairey produce color-coded images with little resonance. Or take handsome promo shots for Vogue Italy after pasting his work on a failed urban storefront. Or revel in his street cred and controversy while museums that should know better pander to his status.

What the rest of us get from "Supply and Demand" is nothing more than a slick package of redundant imagery, and the Warhol does a surprising disservice to its visitors by touting the work in this exhibit as politically relevant social critique. The best idea I suppose one could take away from "Supply and Demand" is one about how easily we can be sold image and identity, for at its essence the exhibit is a retrospective of Fairey's "Obey" brand name.

It can't be said that I went to see the new show without prior bias, nor can I refrain from admitting that I appreciated the two cases of Fairey's oldest drawings and related creative ephemera. Yet, besides the usual critiques I might have had of Fairey's past work, I felt something else while walking around the museum. Perhaps a friend said it best: "It just feels like another Dude making work with beautiful women in it," – and, I would add, a short catalog of images of power. Something that doesn't get said about Fairey's work very often is that he easily typifies a tired "boys’ club" mentality regarding art. Women, if they appear in his work at all, almost exclusively do so as beautiful faces and bodies. Guns, tanks, machines, fists and stern faces proliferate.

It's a troubling feeling to be standing in an exhibit so obviously full of machismo, but the idea hadn't occurred to the curators: As the captioning paragraph to a large image entitled "Arab Woman" proclaims, "Fairey's commitment to challenge preconceived assumptions and stereotypes – in this instance about gender and culture – underlines his engagement with the most pressing issues of our time." Was I just missing something? In another room I found a celebration of men in music, including a wall of portraits of well known and successful musicians: Flava Flav and Chuck D, Slick Rick, Tupac Shakur along with Joe Strummer, Ian MacKaye and others. Debbie Harry appeared as a token addition on one end, not far from a close-cropped shot of some apparently revolutionary panties. Perhaps what we're seeing here is just a selection of Fairey's own favorites, and the man is welcome to listen to, be inspired by and illustrate whatever he likes. The impression it left, however, was of having visited the bedroom of an enamored teenage boy still coping with issues of sexuality and gender in his surroundings.

Contrary to the hype text on the walls of the Warhol, I would offer that the excitement about Fairey's show doesn't stem from some underlying genius of the current work, or even from audience expectations of something terribly new – and this is exactly where one can locate Fairey's working method. People love "Obey" like they love Bath and Body Works, Hot Topic or American Eagle Outfitters. Walking into "Supply and Demand" is like walking into a store in the mall: The consistency is the reason for continued purchases and branded enthusiasm, and Fairey's work is a brand you can buy into with ease.

In this light, it's clear that Fairey is a master of business sense, a shrewd calculator possessing a design understanding that manages to appeal to a set of visceral cues that imply "revolution" as well as the sexiness of graffiti or street art. To this end, Fairey deftly removes dialogue and context from his work, and the result is slick, ready-to-wear merchandise. Viewers of a portrait of a young Bobby Seale, captioned "Co-founder of the Black Panthers," don't even have to care what the Black Panther Party ever was – it just looks cool. The real power in Fairey's work, the power flexed not just on these museum walls but on walls all over Pittsburgh, lies in his ability to pander to deeply rooted consumer desires; many people want the T-shirt without the politics, the image without the struggle. Rather than analyze this tension, the Warhol cheer-leads Fairey's work without pause, bringing into question whether curatorial motivations had more to do with the artist's celebrity than with anything his work might bring to the table.

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