I finally got to see the Shepard Fairey ‘Sound & Vision’ show at StolenSpace over the weekend and it is highly recommended. There was a vast amount of work pitched between two galleries with a shop in between for good measure and as a body of work it’s very impressive. I’ve been a fan since seeing his early paste ups in New York in the mid 90’s and attended his first London show in ’99 at the Horse Hospital. That he was doing a music-themed show was music to my ears (sorry), given that he’s designed sleeves and videos for a number of acts over the years and knows the language, always inserting musical icons into his work. For those that know Fairey’s style – it’s not a massive departure visually, the red, cream and black colour scheme dominates throughout and that’s fine because it’s a classic. He really doesn’t need to mess with the formula as there’s more than enough here to see and it gives everything a certain coherence.
He’s experimented with other ways of presenting though, a series of A2 images are repeated on brushed metal in one part of the gallery and there’s an underlying collage feel to some of the pieces where he’s pasted several layers of paper together before printing over the top, much like the fly-postered surfaces he goes over on the streets. Elsewhere multiple copies of the same print have been dissected, mixed up and reassembled so that geometric patterns are present from the different print and paper colours. These are stunning to see in the flesh, like some ancient scrolls unearthed from an Eastern archive, each one is dirty as if layers of varnish and glue have been applied and their edges remain ragged. Elsewhere he has ‘retired’ stencils pasted into collages, edges thick with paint and given a new lease of life as the tools become exhibits in their own right.
The part of the show that I thought most successful was the gallery with the records in racks, (part of Fairey’s own collection), customised turntables and 12″x12″ prints. Copies of sleeves he’d designed were randomly inserted throughout the vinyl as well as a tantalising selection of 7″ custom ‘Obey Recordings’ laser-cut sleeves and record labels. These were beautiful objects and the fact that you could touch them just added to the experience, sadly they weren’t for sale and I wanted to steal one so badly but resisted. Various vintage record and tape players were dotted about with stencils and stickers added to personalise them in the Obey way, you could even play the records on some of the turntables which was a nice touch. A lot of the prints in this gallery were fictional Obey record sleeves using advertising logos and jargon from the classic Stereo Test record era mixed with Fairey’s usual propaganda-type slogans. There was repetition of the imagery but each design held it’s own and it was hard to pick a favourite as they were all beautiful. Above the record racks sat a wall of black & white gig posters, except they weren’t. Fairey had taken existing images and posters and retooled them with his own logos and messages and this is where I start to have issues with some of the work.
Before everyone pulls me up and says, “Shepard Fairey using other people’s work? surely not!? Next you’ll be telling me bears shit in the woods?” I’m pretty well versed in his history. He’s always appropriated the imagery of others, subverted existing logos and messages to his own needs, he’s by no means the first or the last to do this and various lawsuits have been filed as with any successful artist – ‘where there’s a hit there’s a writ’. The whole argument for and against appropriation could fill books and I’m not about to go into it at length here, also given that I use others materials in my own work there’s an element of the pot calling the kettle black. However I have my own yardstick for how much of something is used, abused or hinted at in any work and far too often he goes over the line with parts of his designs here. I find this work to be the weakest and it cheapens the rest of it somewhat as it’s a quick and easy thing to take an existing image or logo and reinterpret it – it’s lazy for the most part, a quick artistic crowd-pleaser.
I find it more interesting to take the benign and turn it into something beautiful by re-contextualising it like Warhol‘s Campbell’s Soup tins or Lichtenstein‘s comic art appropriations (although this still doesn’t discount the matter of copyright infringement). Fairey does this well with the various nods to the design language of 60’s and 70’s era record graphics: turntable speeds, 45 adapter shapes, retro fonts and patterns – you’ve seen it, or something like it, before but it’s not a complete rip. But by taking existing gig posters and redesigning them into more gig posters in his own image he’s not bringing anything new to the medium, just basking in the reflected glory of others’ work. Chuck D‘s Public Enemy logo is modified so that the silhouetted figure in the crosshairs now has a pasting brush, Lichtenstein’s pop art is parodied with a grenade as spray can adding an ‘er‘ to a ‘POW!’ speech balloon, Jamie Reid‘s ‘No Future’ Sex Pistols tour poster is modified and Joe Petagno‘s Motorhead logo is just used straight in a couple of pieces. Another one takes Jasper Johns‘ multi-layered number paintings as inspiration and just changes the typeface, again using the collaged bed for texture that worked far more successfully on the previously mentioned pieces where he’d used his own designs.
By parodying other artists’ work I feel Fairey is cheapening his own art, I think he’s better than this, well, I know he is because of all the other work in the show. It is littered with cultural bookmarks and (mostly Rock) icons – Joey Ramone, Lennon & Yoko, Lemmy, Iggy, Cash, etc. – again taken from existing (uncredited) photographs and homogenised in the clean, smoothed out style he made famous with his Obama ‘Hope’ poster. 80’s graffiti heroes like Haring and Basquiat feature alongside enough punk and post punk legends to fill an issue of Mojo. And that’s fine but I’m not sure what he’s trying to say by including these aside from the inherited ‘cool’ factor and the rebel nature of a lot of the subjects, linking into the subversive attitude and message in many of the other pieces no doubt. Grenades feature in several pieces and the grenade as spray can image from the ‘PowER’ piece is an extremely strong icon which he should revisit and exploit in future works rather than have relegated to a Lichtenstein pastiche.
I found the upstairs of the main Stolen Space gallery the most uneven of all the work including a few larger pieces that looked like they were experiments in a new direction but with little visual direction apparent. Interestingly, whilst virtually every piece had sold throughout the exhibition, these had not, possibly more due to their high price tag than the virtual absence of anything that said ‘Obey’ about them. It was this elevated section that seemed to have the left overs in it, odd sized pieces which didn’t fit elsewhere so had been clustered together when a few less and a bit more surrounding space would have given them more impact and taken any filler out. The best here were the retired stencils – one of his classic Andre The Giant with painting instructions – and the design for the show poster itself which greeted you when you walked in. Overall though there was way more good than bad and to have such high quality throughout with that number of pieces – there must have been around 200 or more – is some feat.
The show ends on Nov 4th so you have less than a week to check it out and we feature Z-Trip‘s soundtrack mix for the exhibition on this weeks Solid Steel.