Obey: Shepard Fairey Posters

When National Portrait Gallery Curator Michael Desmond first saw Shepard Fairey’s now famous Obama ‘Hope’ poster he was caught between two emotions. Excitement that the mainstream exposure of Fairey’s work would make it easier to successfully mount an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and a tinge of sadness that one of his favourite artists was out of the box – just like when your favourite obscure band suddenly hits the top forty.

Guns and Roses 2006
Shepard Fairey 'Guns and Roses'

Now, almost twelve months after Obama’s subsequent election, Desmond has finally been able to realise his goal, in the form of the exhibition Obey: Shepard Fairey Posters at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Since the late 1980s Fairey has been sharing his artwork with the world via street-based poster, paste-up, sticker and stencil campaigns, such as ‘Andre the Giant Has A Posse’ and ‘Obey Giant’. With a background deeply rooted in punk and Skateboarding, Fairey started out by creating artwork for tshirts and skate decks as a teenager in the 80s.

Nowadays, although he is still actively involved with skate culture, Fairey’s name is synonymous with his own punchy brand of political poster art: screenprinted series that combine a retro aesthetic with pertinent social issues.

Long before he exploded onto the collective public conciousness with his poster for the Obama campaign (which has since been called the “the most efficacious American political illustration since Uncle Sam Wants You”) Fairey was working with political subjects, chiefly anti-war and anti-Bush messages. More recently, he has been concerned with the fight for democracy in Burma, and campaigning for clean energy in the face of climate change.

A number of his political posters are currently on display in the NPG, coupled with a selection of Fairey’s pop-culture portraits, all drawn from the last ten years of his practice. Throughout his career, Fairey has created screenprints of a wide range of iconic figures, many of them from the music industry. The exhibition includes representations of Public Enemy, Johnny Ramone, Tupac and Joan Jett, as well as a nod to Andy Warhol, the Grandaddy of the screen-printed poster portrait.

Viewers may recognise Fairey’s distinctive style in many of the design projects he has worked on over the years, including artwork for album covers, advertisements and brand concepts. Although still predominantly regarded as a ‘street artist’ he is happy to engage with the commercial aspects of the art world, acknowledging that commissioned work provides the funds that can be redirected back into his studio and socially-minded projects.

After the fervour of 2008, 2009 has been another big year for Fairey. In February the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston launched a retrospective of Fairey’s work (only to find he was unable to attend the opening celebration on account of being arrested for grafitti charges en route to the gallery), Obama Hope was acquired for the permanent collection of the Portrait Gallery in Washington, and now Obey: Shepard Fairey Posters is on display in Canberra.

Whilst Fairey’s work has appeared on Australian shores many a time in the context of street art this exhibition is the first time his work has been formally exhibited in an arts institution before an entirely new audience. Whether his images are postered in the public domain or framed on the walls of a gallery such as the NPG the essential messages remain the same and, for Fairey, that is perhaps what is most important.

Slick, satisfying, and will make you want to get out the silk screens.

Obey: Shepard Fairey Posters continues at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra until 17h January 2010

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