Jeffrey Deitch and Antonino D’Ambrosio
Gingko Press (in association with Obey Giant)
Recently the artist Shepard Fairey was beaten up by anarchists in Copenhagen, Denmark over a misunderstanding regarding the status of one of his public pieces. Fairey put a mural up on the side of a building that overlooks the demolition site for the ‘youth house’, a Copenhagen punk venue and activist meeting place that existed from 1982 to 2007. Fairey’s original mural looked like this:
Furthermore, Shepard Fairey entered into dialogue with angry locals, in which he recieved a black eye:
The anti-Fairey activists felt that his mural was a city-sanctioned gesture to make amends to them over the loss of their meeting space via the work of a well-known American artist. Undoubtedly, European anarchists best know Fairey as the creator of this iconic image of president Barack Obama:
and therefore interpret the artist as little more than a propagandist for American power. According to Fairey, one of the street-toughs called him “Obama Illuminati”. The whole episode is unfortunate because Fairey was paying tribute to the house and local figures (who, according to Shepard, knew better) claimed that the artist was working in collaboration with the city as part of a strategy to erase ongoing conflict with the punks.
There are two ways in which this story links back to the content of the book Mayday: The Art of Shepard Fairey. The first is with regards to the defacement of the mural, the second is with regards to the intention to pay tribute. Mayday is the record of an exhibition (it’s not quite an exhibition catalogue) of Fairey’s work which was also the last of the Deitch Projects (a series of art exhibitions curated by Jeffrey Deitch). It is also a collection of Fairey’s recent works, from 2010, as well as numerous images of street art including new photos of publicly placed Giant posters and stickers. What dominates Mayday (a title that evokes a distress call, and the annual day of celebration for radical labour) are the portraits and images of tribute to Fairey’s influences.
Many of Fairey’s 2010 works, represented in Mayday, are portraits of revolutionary figures from art, music, politics and academia. Using the method of appropriating iconic images of images that served him well in the past (with the Obey Giant campaign and more recently with his ‘Hope’ image of President Obama) Fairey creates monochromatic (but vibrant) representations of his idols, including Iggy Pop, Cornell West, Neil Young, Debbie Harry, Grandmaster Flash, Keith Harring, Jasper Johns, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Woody Guthrie, Robert Rauschenberg, Nico, and a number of others.
Not all the images are portraits, however Fairey has found novel ways to pay tribute to his influences. First, the book’s cover image is one of many Flag pieces, paintings of the American flag, by the artist, which can, perhaps, be read as the artist’s reinterpretation of Jasper John’s famous flag works. One of Fairey’s flags is ‘MAYDAY Flag White’,
is a direct reference to John’s 1955 ‘White Flag’.
Another of Fairey’s flags, ‘MAYDAY Flag Black’ also refers back to Johns, but also to Black Flag, an LA hardcore band of the late 70s/early 80s that Fairey makes reference to on his blog posts and in other works. Most notable of these works is ‘Rise Above Control’ a bleak image of what may be an office or industrial building with the first line of this song:
printed on it.
All of Fairey’s gallery pieces are represented in the book as full colour images, and are often full page representations to render the detail of the collaged backgrounds legible. Much of Fairey’s post-Giant work has foregrounded symbolic imagery against a background of wallpaper or textile-esque patterns (with his Giant Obey signs embedded into them somewhere). In the Mayday works, he has also included fragments of newspaper headlines, and printed matter from other sources as well as, on the portraits, subtle references to the subject. Example: the portrait of Keith Harring includes his ‘radiating baby’ symbol,
and the Woodie Guthrie portrait includes collaged depression-era headlines. While Fairey flattens his subject matter through his design aesthetic, he brings depth to each image through his use of collage and background symbols.
I have mostly focused on the canvas paintings of Mayday, although the book contains works done in a variety of media, including stencil works, decorated leather jackets, posters, and street murals. What interests me about the murals that appear in this book is that he simulates the effect that they are images that have been layered on top of one another and then torn in parts to reveal different levels of imagery.
These murals evoke the registered structure of James Rosenquist’s large 1970s paintings, but in their simulated torn-ness they also evoke the work of Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella et al. and their ‘decollage’ technique of producing images from torn-up public posters.
In creating a sense of the layered and damaged images in many of his street murals, Fairey’s works acknowledge the public wall image as a site that accumulates new forms and therefore new meanings. The above mural is a Fairey collaboration with notorious graffiti artist COPE2, and the result appears as though COPE2 is painting over an existing image. Painting over is a gesture of disrespect in the graffiti subculture but with this piece it is actually the opposite. Still, this mural creates the appearance of such street-art communication, but other works of his accumulate other forms, and many of the photos in Mayday of Fairey’s ‘Giant’ posters show that they have been defaced in a number of ways, and images of a large mural painted by him show that they had parts painted over by other artists.