Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shepard Fairey at the ICA

The other day, thrilling to the new Silversun Pickups while driving on the Mass Pike to Boston, I found myself wishing that I could get the same feeling from art—the exhilaration, the physical surge in the chest—that happens when I hear great music. Roberto and I were on our way to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to finally catch Shepard Fairey’s show, “Supply and Demand,” before its closing tomorrow. My attempts to attend the winter opening were foiled by the weather, the following months were filled with travel and constant precipitation, so now—rain or no rain—we were making the two–hour drive.

What did I expect? Well I was a big fan of Shepard Fairey’s graphic work, and I’ve always been captivated by the way graffiti and street art in general can add (as in this photo I recently took in Reykjavik) a layer of poetry to the gritty urban landscape.

As consultant, I was enamored enough to suggest Fairey to TIME for the 2007 “Person of the Year” cover of Putin (it ultimately ran on the inside, and he did a new image of Obama for 2008’s cover) and loved his iconic Obama poster, the way it captured the spirit of the man, the campaign and the times, and how simply beautiful it was. I also admired Fairey’s philosophy—in the ridiculous brouhaha over his appropriation of the AP image of Obama (exacerbated by a news media that insists on reproducing the AP photograph not as it originally appeared but as Fairey cropped it) hardly anyone has pointed out that Fairey never intended the image as a money-maker, but made it available for free on his Web site.

However I’d also read Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker review, where he described the work in the show as “formulaic,” “slick and resistible,” and Christopher Knight’s review in the LA Times that talked about Fairey’s “limited pictorial vocabulary.”

Therefore I was not prepared for Art with a capital A, or a rush similar to the one I’d just gotten from the Silversun Pickups—or to find that most everyone I talked to afterwards who’d seen the show shared my enthusiasm, including a museum administrator who put it in the top five of museum shows she’s seen…ever.

It was gorgeous.

Photographs cannot reproduce the nuance, depth and complexity of Fairey’s surfaces. Clearly his inspiration comes from the street—the way peeling posters can reveal chance fragments from earlier ones, or how signs painted on the sides of buildings often wear away to expose a jumble of previous messages—yet the result is elegant and sophisticated, as well as soft and sensual. Further, Fairey wrests all this texture and nuance from what every artist knows is the most hard-edged and unforgiving of media: silkscreen.

What I want from art is that perfect marriage of concept and execution, both so fully developed that, as viewers, we are aware of neither, but powerfully in the experience. Yet I hardly ever find it—so much of what is offered seems half-realized, as if the artist is afraid to take a stand, afraid to actually make something, afraid to commit him/her self fully to an image, an object. Execution is either overdone relative to the flimsiness of the idea, or too casually rendered, as if the idea in itself should be enough. I want to see work that holds up from afar but gives me something to look at up close. I want to see art that looks as if the artist cares.

Packed with complexity and contradiction as well as humor, Fairey’s work does all these things. We stay with his messages about money, power and war because they are embedded in a richness of visual detail, the sumptuous mélange of influences (Russian Constructivism, Middle Eastern art, Pop Art, official engravings such as paper money and stamps, advertising, to name a few) that adds up to his very singular style.

It felt like a feast.

Afterwards we gave the permanent collection a run-through, but following Fairey everything seemed tepid and flat. Then, after a delicious lunch on the windy outdoor terrace overlooking the Charles, we went through the exhibition again. I attempted to get a press kit, images for this blog and to present for reviews, and to find out if the show is traveling, but was told that the administrative, curatorial and press staff were all on vacation that Thursday afternoon and photographs, even by press, were prohibited. (Photography prohibited? In a Shepard Fairey exhibition? )

We’d intended to augment our Boston visit with a stop at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum and some fabulous seafood dinner, but decided instead to just get back in the car and drive home.

We were full.

All Shepard Fairey images borrowed from the Web, by necessity.
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Silverson Pickups' "Panic Switch"

8 comments:

Linda Stillman said...

I will look at his work from a new perspective now. Thank you for your insightful comments. I wish I had seen the show.

Carol Diehl said...

There's still tomorrow!

sfmike said...

Thanks for being both contrary and affirmative. I feel the same way about his work. He's the real thing.

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you for this, Mike! I'm so glad you agree!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! It was truly a wonderful show. Is it going anywhere else? MPX

Carol Diehl said...

Don't know yet. Still haven't heard from the ICA.

Anonymous said...

Obey Shepard Fairey!

Anonymous said...

I found your writing about the power and influence of Shepard Fairey to be wonderful and very true.
It is hard to "talk" about how art feels but that is the power of art and you were able to put it into words. Bravo! Thank You Carol for keeping the fire lit.