How Shepard Fairey is Debunking Art World Elitism, One Print at a Time

Artsy Editorial
Jan 30, 2014 3:48PM

Shepard Fairey’s validation in the art world has done little to scar his street cred; it behooves both sides to embrace an artist who has disrupted, inspired, and endured for the better part of three decades—and today, whose work can claim real estate at London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum and on an album cover for a hardcore punk band. Without trepidation, Fairey makes his stances clear, ones that haven’t wavered since the late ’80s when he first confronted the world with now-ubiquitous images of Andre the Giant. Through 16+ arrests for vandalism and a grueling legal battle with the Associated Press after his Barack Obama “Hope” poster became the emblem of the 2008 presidential campaign, Fairey perseveres, and to listen to him describe a new body of work, which hijacks the American flag, he finds no threat in controversy. On the occasion of four new screen prints made in collaboration with Paul Stolper Gallery, Fairey names screen printing as the cornerstone of his practice, opens up on the relationship between street art and gallery art, and shares his pointed and passionate thoughts on the freedoms of an artist, his own included.

Artsy: Can you talk a little bit about printmaking and its relationship to your practice?

Shepard Fairey: Screen printing is kind of the cornerstone of my entire practice; it’s what led me in the direction I evolved in aesthetically. It was the way to synthesize illustration, graphic design, type design, and to create multiples—I loved the idea of having not just one precious original. Especially when I got more and more into street art, it was a way for me to make art and also make images for the street that I could reproduce on a shoestring budget. There were so many functional reasons for me to be drawn to screen printing, but also the art world model of “restrict the supply to increase the demand” and make everything about preciousness, and scarcity, and the coveted trophy—I was always much more of a populist; I hated the elitism of the art world. So the idea of making prints was really important to make the work accessible.

Artsy: What do you feel is the difference between your street art and gallery art?

SF: Street art is meant to be free for the public to view, whether they like it or not. So there’s the way that the public is going to engage with it, in terms of if they’re just driving or walking by; it needs to grab your attention, and it can’t be too fussy. With fine art you can get into nuances with the surface in ways that aren’t practical with street art. My aesthetic in the two areas has a lot of overlap, but there are also differences. When I’m working on a mural, my assumption is it’s generally going to be viewed from a distance, and therefore a lot of the subtleties in the surface wouldn’t really make sense. For example, in the prints I did with Paul [Stolper], I was able to incorporate a metallic foil, which plays off the surface in a completely different way than an inexpensive print I would put up on the street, yet the imagery is imagery I could put up on the street. The fine art application of printing is about making it a really beautiful object that you can look at over and over and live with in your home; it’s not a fleeting, ephemeral thing the way street art is. I love street art; the idea of connecting with people in their daily lives is really important to me. But I also like to make pieces that I think are great art objects.

Artsy: These prints were your first foray into foil-blocking. Can you explain that process and how it relates to the work?

SF: It is transferred with a sheet of foil and an adhesive on the print, and it’s stamped on—it’s almost like gold leaf—so you have this literal, shimmering, foil surface that’s on the print. The prints are actually made with a combination of foil blocking and screen-printed metallic; the interplay between the two is really important, because in those prints specifically, it ends up having a character kind of like the metallic watermark in currency or stock certificates. And those pieces are designed to have a little bit of this luxurious seduction but also the monolithic intimidation of currency. It’s that dichotomy that’s really important to me. The name of the series is “Power & Glory,” and it’s about how certain symbols, industries, aspirations can be a double-edged sword. The American flag is a very malleable symbol; it means a lot of different things. I’m looking at it to say it can be good or bad; at all the triumphs and failures of the American dream that it might connote.

Artsy: The Obey motif is prominent in the center of these prints. Can you tell us about this iconography, which you’ve been using for over 20 years. Does it mean the same thing as when you started?

SF:It started with my Andre the Giant sticker and evolved into the Obey iconography, which was an abstraction and an evolution. Andre was seen by some as a goofy sweetheart and by others as a malevolent villain. Early on, that made me think about this Rorschach nature of how anything that’s seen in public without an explanation can be interpreted based on people’s personalities. Ever since the Obey icons, I’ve sometimes made it about a counterculture hero, sometimes it’s about the oppressive, dominant powers that be. In this situation, because I’ve woven in some Arabic motifs into the face, I see it as more of a subversive hijacking of the flag as a symbol that the right wing has pretty much taken control of.

With the flag, people are inclined to think that “we’re America, we’re the good guys, we don’t do anything unethical.” I’m proud to be an American with the freedoms I have, but I also think the idea of patriotism is to not just turn a blind eye to things you’re unhappy about. If the definition of America right now is drones, domestic spying, and a lot of civilian casualties in the Middle East, then let’s change the definition of the flag. And of course, the Arab world right now is seen in such a lazy, stereotypical way, generalized as extremists and villains. I think to embed Arabic motifs in the Andre face is, for some people, going to be seen as really offensive. But there are human beings everywhere, and there are a lot of good people and a few bad people in every part of the world. But I think provoking a little bit of analysis of these generalizations is part of what I’m trying to do.

Artsy:  In using the flag, were you thinking about any of the artists who’ve used the flag in the past?

SF:Of course. Jasper Johns is a major hero of mine. I also love Robert Indiana. Rauschenberg has used the flag in some works. I’ve used the flag; in my 2010 Mayday show I did some more obvious abstractions of the flag. This newest one is taking it a little bit further, but it’s still a similar idea. When I show in South Carolina in the spring, the “Power & Glory” show, it’s with Jasper Johns, so there’s a little bit of a nod to him in them.

Artsy: What other artists have been heroes of yours?

SF:There are a lot of artists that have been heroes of mine. Raymond Pettibon, who did all the graphics for Black Flag; and Ed Ruscha is a big inspiration. Some of the things that I’ve done around gas have been … well not literally connected to his Standard Station, but there’s a little bit of that piece as a point of inspiration, while at the same time I’m criticizing some of our fossil fuel policies and companies. That’s the thing about art: you can celebrate and critique simultaneously. And sometimes how something reads aesthetically at a glance, and then how it’s impacted conceptually by a second, deeper read of the more subtle part of the aesthetics; to me, that’s where the magic is. I think that Ruscha has done that well in some of his pieces.

Artsy: Do you have personal relationships with any of your collectors?

SF:  Yeah, I do. And of course I’m really excited when somebody who I think is cool or influential in the art world or in pop culture in general gets something. Eminem’s manager just picked up something; Neil Young got some stuff from me; it’s very, very exciting and validating.

Artsy:  Could you talk about the L.A. art scene right now?

SF: When I got here thirteen years ago, there were really only a few galleries that were catering to the world outside of the close-to-blue-chip level; there weren’t many alternative spaces for emerging artists or street artists. And now there are a ton. There’s a ton of opportunities for artists in L.A., and there’s a huge, diverse art scene. I think the thing about L.A. is, it’s not quite as elitist or hierarchical as it is in New York, where space is so expensive that in order to show in a gallery, it’s almost essential that you have commercial viability. Here, there are a lot of opportunities that people can get at lower-overhead spaces, and make things happen. There’s a lot of different neighborhoods in L.A. and different groups of people influencing each other; it’s very, very rich and diverse, and I love that; it’s never-ending inspiration.

Artsy: Has the Obama “Hope” poster lawsuit made you more weary of appropriation? How, if at all, has it changed your outlook on your freedoms as an artist?

SF: First of all—and this might sound nitpicky—the Obama “Hope” poster is not appropriation; it’s using a photographic reference to make an illustration. I consider appropriation to be using a source image “as-is.” From the invention of the photograph, artists have worked from photographs; you wouldn’t call van Gogh an appropriation artist, right? But yeah, of course, getting in that lawsuit was really unexpected, and really expensive, and brutal. Even though I was able to settle with them and maintain my legal position—what I did was fair use—when you’re going to get into an entanglement like that, that takes a lot of time and money; it’s really not worth it. I’ve adapted the way that I work to be a little bit smarter about avoiding a situation like that. But it hasn’t fundamentally changed the way that I work.

Artsy: What are you working on next?

SF: I’m working on the pieces for the “Power & Glory” show at the Halsey; that’s a big priority right now. And I just finished a seven-inch cover for the band Off!, [co-founded by] Keith Morris, the original singer for Black Flag and Circle Jerks. They wrote a song inspired by me called “Learn to Obey” that I designed a cover for. I also have a show in April that’s my ongoing series of images that are a tribute to the 12-inch record format. I’ve done 50 new ones, so the show is called “50 Shades of Black.” That will be showing at our gallery, Subliminal Projects. I’m going to do a recreation of a record store with a lot of my record collection that people can go through and listen to. All of the images will be on the wall, and I’ve customized turntables and made large-format, fine-art versions of the art pieces.

Portrait of Shepard Fairey by J. Furlong, courtesy of the artist and Paul Stolper Gallery

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