Shepard Fairey Propaganda _ the Preempting of criticism by qingyunliuliu


                                                                                                                       ISSUE: MARCH 2010

Shepard Fairey:
Propaganda & the
Preempting of

          It is opportune that the Contemporary Arts
Center is currently hosting Shepard Fairey’s ‘Supply
and Demand,’ as the outreach and marketing needs
of the CAC are in sync with the artist’s broad-based
demographic appeal.
          A brief stroll into the CAC inundates the
senses. Fairey’s massive mural covers the entryway
support column, immediately filling one’s vision with
warm red /orange hues and strong black lines. A gi-
ant female figure defiantly gazes outward. On the sec-
ond floor, the first vision here is a wall covered with
smaller framed poster prints (or originals?) of his oeu-
vre. The same colors fill the gaze, strongly contrasted
with black: the works are nearly monochrome. Com-
positions are evident in the style of, or taken directly
from, art nouveaux, left-wing political posters, Peter
Max psychedelia, and agitprop-style government pro-
          I personally felt a dual connection to this
work. I recalled my frequent visits to Harvard Square,
in Cambridge, MA, over twenty years ago. At this
time, Fairey had already begun his covering of the
region with the early form of his Obey stickers. I
noticed them everywhere, and wondered what they
were about. When I learned last year that he was also
the author of the Obama campaign sign, I was deeply
pleased by the memory and association.
          Here, too, in the exhibit at the Contempo-
rary Arts Center, I encountered another aspect of my
background. Fairey’s images are heavily composed by         Shepard Fairey. Guns & Roses Stencil, 2007. Retired stencil and collage on paper, 44”x30”
the re-use of posters, advertisements, and propaganda       Photo courtesy of Chloe Gordon and the Contemporary Arts Center.
imagery from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the
former Soviet Union, and other left political move-         thinkers from Fanon to Tocqueville, Marx to Marcuse, always surrounded by
ments that are difficult to identify (though partially so   the kind of left-wing paraphernalia collected by the still-defiant ex-hippies (or
in his book Supply and Demand). My personal con-            not ex?) that organized, and taught for, the program.
nection here was from my undergraduate studies at                     Hence to be surrounded at the CAC with such imagery, the hand of
the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. My ma-          the artist of the Harvard Square stickers, and the range of warm tones, was a
jor was philosophy doubled with a left-wing, Marxist-       strangely comforting experience, even in the peculiar coldness of Hadid’s ar-
inspired, broad-based liberal arts major called STPEC       chitecture. But as I studied his work, and consulted later articles about him, I
(Social Thought and Political Economy). We studied          grew concerned by the valid issues surrounding Fairey’s use of others’ imagery

                                                                                                                        ISSUE: MARCH 2010

in his own artwork, as well as his employment of pre-            to all, whether they have money and lawyers or not.” A strange argument
cisely the methodology that he claims to critique.               (or sound byte), considering that the AP case is about intellectual property—
                                                                 something that protects artists. I was already witnessing the tactics of the cor-
THE FIRST ISSUE:                                                 porate damage-control spokesperson: apologize, but put spin on your case to
          By now it is commonplace to cite his use of            keep the community on your side. Significantly, soon after Fairey admitted to
Manny Garcia’s photo of Barack Obama’s head for his              wrongdoing, his legal team, led by Anthony Falzone (of Stanford University’s
campaign poster. The case brought to him by the As-              Fair Use Project ) withdrew their support. The Los Angeles Times again re-
sociated Press, though, is still not resolved. David NG          ported on January 26, 2010 that Fairey “would be facing a criminal investiga-
of The Los Angeles Times reported on October 16th                tion in connection with his admitted misconduct.”
last year that Fairey “knowingly submitted false im-                       Could the legal issues here also implicate an institution that hosts
ages and deleted others in the legal proceedings, in             his work? The Contemporary Art Center is hosting a similar Obama Hope
an attempt to conceal the fact that the AP had cor-              artwork on display on the third floor without any mention of the legal battle
rectly identified the photo that Fairey had used as a            around it. Some institutions have included the Garcia photo next to the Fairey
reference for his “Hope” poster of then-Sen. Barack              image, and informed their viewers of the issue at hand. Was the staff and board
Obama.” Fairey is cited in the paper in his formal               aware of the legal issues surrounding Shepard Fairey before agreeing to host
statement: “While I initially believed that the photo            Fairey’s work? I raise this as a question, since I do not have the answer.
I referenced was a different one, I discovered early on
in the case that I was wrong. In an attempt to con-              FAIR USE: WARHOL & LICHTENSTEIN
ceal my mistake I submitted false images and deleted                        The above debate revolves around the difference between Fair Use of
other images.”                                                   an image in the public domain, and the way an artist is allowed to use it in his
          In the same statement, Fairey is quick to              or her own work. One claims the freedom of the artist to take a work, trans-
make note that he is still a freedom fighter for the use         form it by their own hand, and make it into a new form; the other, based on
of Fair Use images in the arts. On his site he states, “I        the standards of ethical scholarship, believes that any use of intellectual prop-
am fighting the AP to protect the rights of all artists,         erty without some referencing to the source is plagiarism. This is a huge issue
especially those with a desire to make art with social           today, with Fairey right in the middle. It is further confused by the presence
commentary. This is about artistic freedom and basic             of media and information sites like Wikipedia, in which unknown authors
rights of free expression, which need to be available            provide free material.
                                                                            Mark Vallen, an artist, wrote a scathing attack on Fairey in his online
                                                                 article, ‘Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey’ on Dec. 2007. One of Vallen’s main is-
                                                                 sues, and one with which I concur, is that Fairey does not transform the images
                                                                 he utilizes. To do so without citation is plagiarism. To take images, add nice
                                                                 backgrounds and then insert one’s own brand (the Obey Giant) is too much
                                                                 of a direct copy. Fortunately for Fairey, Vallen’s issues are heavily about Fairey’s
                                                                 earlier work; additionally, Fairey cites now many of his sources in his catalog.
                                                                 However, the catalog is hardly accessible to everyone at nearly $60. Why not
                                                                 use his popular site for the dissemination of this information?
                                                                            Nevertheless, Fairey’s image sources are troublesome mainly because
                                                                 of their exotic or relatively unfamiliar (to white North Americans) source. This
                                                                 is another point made by Vallen. It is the fundamental difference between
                                                                 Fairey’s work and the oft-cited-in-his-defense antecedents: Roy Lichtenstein
                                                                 and Andy Warhol.
                                                                            Lichtenstein reproduced comic images in his work, almost exactly
                                                                 as they first appeared. Hence Fairey, one may argue, follows in this artistic
                                                                 tradition. But Lichtenstein’s use of imagery was critical in a way that Fairey’s
                                                                 is not. Lichtenstein meant to heighten our awareness of the cliche (from an
                                                                 interview in 1966 by David Sylvester in New York City for broadcast by BBC
                                                                 Third Programme) of contemporary imagery. The viewer was familiar with
                                                                 Lichtenstein’s images, but were discombobulated by the content and visual or-
                                                                 dering of the unexpected phrases accompanying them. So also with Warhol; by
                                                                 reproducing images of, say, Marilyn Monroe, Warhol was able to aestheticize a
                                                                 product that had become part of mass marketing. He subverted it, through his
                                                                 messy approach to the craft of screen reproduction. The typical viewer of to-
                                                                 day in North America often will not recognize many of the images that Fairey
Shepard Faiery. Obey Angela Davis, 2005, Mixed media             is using. A naive viewer may even think that Fairey is revolutionary, since his
silk screen collage on paper, hand painted multiple, 44x30 in.   art utilizes such.
Courtesy of Obey Giant Art and the Contemporary Arts Center.

                                                                                                                        ISSUE: MARCH 2010

Vallen also argues that Fairey aestheticizes images
that are not part of mass media. Some had their ori-
gin in the form of protesters posting them on walls.
In that form they are part of the public domain.
Then, in Fairey’s hands, they become his work: le-
gally copywritten, commercially available, no lon-
ger fair use. The re-contextualization, if we may so
call it, is not radical in the way they first appeared,
despite the artists’ claims.
           When Fairey is the creator of his source
imagery, he can claim complete authorship, such as
in his statement from his web site: “I use my own
family members as models, taking my own photos
of them to illustrate from such as Vivi La Revolu-
cion and Commanda.” Also, when he collaborates
consciously with other willing photographers, he
can very simply avoid all issues of appropriation.
My understanding is that much of Fairey’s work of
recent years in fact does this.
           However, even in such instances, there are         Shepard Fairey. Mural outside HighStreet, 1401 Reading Road, Cincinnati, OH, 2010. Staff
cases in which I have another issue. There are two            Photo.
visual approaches at work in some, if not most, of
the compositions of Fairey: the first is the pretty           The Composition Gallery, an entity that hosted Fairey’s work, quotes Fairey’s
effect of his colors and collage patterns (plus his           accurate observations about Rockoff ’s work on its web site : “Al Rockoff ’s
moniker added—the famous Obey symbol from                     photos reveal the brutality, but also the conflicted humanity seen in war.”
deceased wrestler Andre the Giant), the second the            However, in Fairey’s rendition, the image is beautiful to behold: stunning
actual image and text. Their union represents the             patterns (apparently derived from Persian carpetry) fill the background.
methodology of propaganda and marketing.                      The left side of the figure is cast as a psychedelic sunburst, with background
                                                              touches of the Obey figures. The problem isn’t the colors, patterns, etc.; it is
SECOND ISSUE: THE PRETTY & POLITICAL                          the contradiction of beautifying something that is terrible and tragic. Note
           It is easiest to explain this by way of a strong   here the criticism typically launched against Hollywood: the aestheticiza-
example; in this case his work Duality of Humanity            tion of violence in popular films. How can one speak of creating work that
4 (2006). This work resulted from a collaboration             is revolutionary or critical when the visual aesthetics of it are in contradic-
with Al Rockoff, immortalized for his valiant efforts         tion to the message? The message is diluted; like so many others of its ilk,
to document the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in              generalized under the same Fairey aesthetic.
the film The Killing Fields (1984; he was played by                     A second distortion here will be when these images are seen in their
John Malcovich). The photo from which Duality of              original form for the first time by the naive viewer (e.g., someone may never
Humanity 4 is copied depicts a teenage soldier un-            have seen the Rockoff photo): instead of having a socially critical potency
der the regime. It is, politically and morally, an im-        to them, they will recall the attractive Fairey poster that used it. This is far
age that refers to a real atrocity that occurred. The         more likely to happen to the younger generation that grew up in the demise
child soldier is the ultimate symbol of the death of          of the old Soviet Union. Try Googling images of Al Rockoff, and you will
the human spirit. Instead of study and play, the op-          see Fairey images appear as thumbnails along with Rockoff ’s originals. If
portunity to grow into his own unique individual-             Google is the principle method in which so much information is located
ity, this child is reduced to the generalized status of       and disseminated, Rockoff ’s work will now be inextricably linked to Fairey
a soldier.                                                    posters. It is a coup for Fairey, since he gains by association.
           When an adult assumes this role for his or                   In art, there is most often a separation between the calming nature
her country, it is a conscious act of sacrifice; when         of beauty and the agitating form of political art. As stances, they belong
it is thrust upon a child, it is an immense loss to the       apart. Political and revolutionary images are not meant to calm the viewer,
human spirit, both individually and collectively. We          but awaken them to consciousness of real social issues. A work of beauty is
imagine here the loss to universal culture to which           meant for quiet contemplation, aimed at the transformation of the psyche
this child could have contributed, had his unique             of the viewer. The two forms of design that meld these two together are mar-
potential been developed. Perhaps this child, in a            keting and propaganda. Therein lays their manipulative force; beautify a product,
different setting, would have been a Mozart or Mi-            or a political message, and it is easier to seduce the consumer. It worked for totali-
chelangelo. The Khmer Rouge trained these child               tarian regimes, and became perfected by corporate marketing.
soldiers to kill, lay mines, and worship the state.

                                                                                                                       ISSUE: MARCH 2010

          The final, and perhaps most decisive issue I
have with Shepard Fairey, is his corporate brand. Fair-
ey lays claim to intentionally work with the methods
of marketing and propaganda; he succeeds in doing
so but not the way in which he declares. His work is
not critical of political imagery simply because he fur-
ther beautifies them via colors and inserts his brand.
If he was still an unknown Graffiti artist, arguably the
Obey Giant insertion would be a valid claim. But to-
day, he has a commercially marketed name. He is ‘vic-
tim’ of his own success. It is his personal propaganda,
his own brand, that he ultimately is marketing.
          More problematic is that any argument one
may raise in criticism to his approaches has a ready-
made sound byte in response: note on his site, his
book, etc. his claims about being precisely that which
he is not. His writings have pre-empted any possible
criticism of them. What better way to be the perfect
corporation, the perfect propagandist, then to make
                                                            Shepard Fairey. Obey Giant insignia above HighStreet, 1401 Reading Road, Cincinnati, OH,
sophisticated claims that you are not doing so? To          2010. Staff Photo.
critique Fairey in this way is to be, therefore, labeled
anti-critical. Jamie O’Shea, friend and collaborator of
Fairey, does this (and more) in his article against Val-
len. Have we not witnessed this tactic in history be-
fore? As I write this, I can already imagine a response
from the Fairey corporation: Fairey is intentionally
doing what you are criticizing him about, didn’t you
read his statements? The title of his show? O’Shea’s re-
sponse to Vallen? The responses would never be about
real philosophical or ethical approaches in the arts (in
some other context I could offer the reader a critique
of his distorted use of Heideggerian phenomenology),
but packaged ideas.
          Despite his claims, or what responses he and
his organization may make to this article, the works
rest independently of the author. If the medium is
the message, as the artist likes to proclaim, then it is
skewed. But then, for Fairey, does the message really
matter? In the end, it is product placement. We are
left with an empty simulacra—revolutionary imag-
ery, iconic rock stars, the faces of a dissenting genera-
tion—appropriated to sell his product. I predict that
he will eventually foray into religious iconography,
and undoubtedly the visages of famous radical think-
ers. He is the appropriate artist for the look-at-me Fa-
cebook generation in which to be socially critical is to
be vaguely rebellious. Visit his site, buy Obey Giant
paraphernalia, and let yourself be convinced that you
too are a cool artsy radical.

                                                                                                                          ISSUE: MARCH 2010

a Calm Spectrum of

           The glowing pastel landscapes of M. Kath-
erine Hurley at 5th Street Gallery, corner of Fifth and
Race, suggest moments in time when the precarious
balance of nature is at rest. Something may have just
happened, or be about to happen, but here is a perfect
instant in between.
           Hurley creates these sanctuaries for the
eye with what might be a limited palette but in her
hands is endlessly varied. “I have maybe thousands
of pastels but use perhaps 100,”she says. “In layer-
ing, I want the underneath to peek through, the eye
will blend them.”Her colors range through delicate
greens, yellow-reds turning orange, blues that deepen
into purple. Hurley’s works at 5th Street Gallery, an
artists’ cooperative showcasing a full spectrum from          M. Katherine Hurley. Winter, 2009. Pastel, 7.5x11.5in. Photo Courtesy of the artist.
local artists, appear at first glance to be almost abstract
horizontal layers of rich color. They settle into land-       that it’s not necessary to go to New York or Santa Fe...there’s everything you
scapes, the only verticals an occasional tree trunk or        could want in our own backyard. Cincinnati has an incredible history of all the
the dim outline of a distant barn. The calm elicited by       arts.”
horizontals is countered by Hurley’s exciting colors, a                  That history continues in places like the Pendleton Arts Center in
rewarding schism.                                             Over-the-Rhine, where Hurley has had a studio for seventeen years. Asked if
           “I now work to let the layers, the process         she only did country landscapes in that very city location, she said she peri-
show through,”she says, describing a change in tech-          odically works with the splendid view from her seventh floor studio window.
nique. Asked if art is a continual learning experience,       “Looking out I can see Music Hall, steeples overlapping in front of me, the
she replies “Absolutely.” As an artist who works in oils      German architecture, a view all the way to Western Hills.”
as well as pastels, she finds “a huge difference between                 Hurley is a teacher as well as artist, and finds that “I learn so much
the two mediums. Pastel is dry, so I’m able to work           from the people I teach. [Teaching] helps with problem solving and provides
very rapidly, while oil is wet, conducive to soft edges,      discipline for my own work. The students are more experimental, and they also
and takes more time. Often, looking at a subject, I can       learn from each other.”She prefers to teach workshops rather than semester
feel in myself which medium I want to use. If there’s         classes, and will hold a three-day workshop in May in New Richmond, OH,
architecture, barns for instance—I love barns—I need          where the river view is part of the landscape. Planned for the weekend of May
the separate edges pastels can produce.”                      14-16, the workshop will help participants “learn to express the mystery of the
           Hurley grew up in small town Ohio with ru-         landscape with shapes, values, color, and lost and found edges. “Lost and found
ral landscapes near at hand. She came to Cincinnati           edges are something Hurley knows all about.
to attend The College of Mt. St. Joseph, where she                       Some of her pastels at 5th Street Gallery have defined shapes, while
received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1974, and          others blend seamlessly from one thing to another. Allegheny Pass, one of three
after graduation continued studies at the Art Academy         large (14.5x21 inches) works is specific in its subject matter while the other
of Cincinnati. As a working artist in Cincinnati for          work that size, December Dawn, does everything by suggestion. Given the
over thirty years, she has seen the local art scene grow      warmth of Hurley’s chosen colors, it’s remarkable that the light in December
and develop. Currently the art market here, as every-         Dawn is so clearly a winter light.
where, is flinching from the economic situation but it                   Her ability to convey seasonal change is the heart of Four Seasons, a
hasn’t disappeared.                                           set of four works at 5th Street Gallery. Each pastel is 7.5x11 inches and shows
           “We try to educate the collecting public           the same landscape at a different period of the year. A trio of works, As the

                                                                                                            ISSUE: MARCH 2010

Sun Rises, also shows a recurrent landscape, this one
at progressive moments during sunrise.
          Art critic Daniel Brown has written percep-
tively about M. Katherine Hurley’s work, which he
says “is the search for essences, not likenesses. “Like-
nesses we can see out the window. Essences are dis-
tilled by the artist’s eye.”

M. Katherine Hurley. December Dawn, 2009. Pastel,
14.5x21in. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

                                                                                                                    ISSUE: MARCH 2010

Shapeshifter at
Country Club

           Post-Minimalism as defined in the late 1960s
was a response to the closed and reductive trends of
Minimalism. With more varied materials and even or-
ganic forms, Post-Minimalists re-engaged the viewer
with open and dynamic compositions. This re-forming
of the form is the subject of Shapeshifter, currently on
view at Country Club in Oakley. While sharing with
Minimalism a focus on shape, the shifting these artists
enact clearly reveals an affinity for an interest in ex-
ploring the physicality of form, the human body, and
our social concerns consistent with Post-Minimalism.
           Even if the exhibition title does not offer
enough of a clue as to what the show is about, upon
entering the gallery, the number of sculpted squares
and other minimal forms reveal quickly the conversa-
tion. However, if the stark white walls and hard edge
forms of Minimalism seems daunting or uninviting,
this show is not. The gallery, filled with organic forms
that are both tactile and recognizable, is welcoming.
           The response to Minimalism witnessed in
the 1960s is repeated here with Chris Radtke’s Ghost
(Wall) 24. This work is made up of 24 nylon mesh
boxes hung on a wall. Recalling Donald Judd, the
boxes are perfectly aligned in a grid. Yet Radkte’s grid
denies the permanence of much of Judd’s work. Over
the course of the current exhibition, the nylon mesh
                                                             Chris Radtke, Ghost (Wall) 24, 2009. Nylon mesh and poly-monofilament, each: 23x23x22
boxes slowly sag by natural force of gravity. While this
                                                             inches. Overall dimensions variable. Photo Courtesy of Country Club.
morphing of the grid responds to the Minimalist’s cel-
ebration of the stability of form, Radtke’s work reflects    forms wonderfully undercuts censorship. While seemingly blotting out porn,
a more corporeal tendency of shifting shapes. Along          the recontextualizing of these images tempts the viewer to take a closer look.
with representing the shifting of space, Ghost (Wall)        Like a public peep show, Irwin’s altered vintage pornography takes advantage
24 recalls the natural tendency of our own body’s re-        of our own natural tendencies to move closer to the image to see if we can see
sponse to time. As our bodies begin to sag with time,        what we can see. Irwin’s work simultaneously explores form, social mores, and
the wall too must contend with natural forces.               the viewer’s interaction in public spaces.
           Stephen Irwin’s Still Lives also deals with the             The decision of how we move through space is the subject of Beth
body. By transforming vintage pornography—timages            Campbell’s hanging metal structures. Unlike Alexander Calder’s work, Camp-
that date back to his own childhood—the Kentucky             bell’s mobiles are more like spacial drawings as well as drawings in space. They
artist creates the equally familiar “Face or Vase” opti-     do not focus on form as much as they represent a network of decisions we
cal illusions. He only slightly obscures the pornogra-       make, paths we take. Made of materials such as steel and copper wire, the
phy images by painting over certain body parts. Ir-          mobiles recall a network made up of branches of thought processes or even
win then puts these new forms together to create the         movements through space. These are not randomly created networks, but re-
well-known optical illusion. I’m not sure if Irwin is        flect a specific problem or exploration she has engaged. One such mobile for
particularly political, but this shifting of shapes and      example reflects the decisions made when walking her dog...which path to take

                                                                                                             ISSUE: MARCH 2010

this time should it be the same as the one she took the
day before? The mobiles represent her own thoughts
or paths, but also reflect universal dynamics of even
the mundane. Hardly minimal, Campbell’s mobiles
present almost unlimited possibilities.
         Shapeshifter also includes works by Jimmy
Baker, Keith Benjamin, Anthony Luensman, and Le-
titia Quesenberry. The exhibition is now on view at
Country Club in Oakley and will run through April
10, 2010.

Stephen Irwin, page 7, 2009. Altered vintage pornography.
11x8 inches. Photo Courtesy of Country Club.


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