Paint the Town Red: Shephard Fairey takes Dallas
Report from… Dallas, Texas
Shepard Fairey, the legendary street artist and graphic designer best known for his Hope posters for the 2008 Obama campaign, spent the first week of February 2012 in Dallas, Texas. Invited by Dallas Contemporary, the city’s non-collecting kunsthalle, Fairey and his crew took to the streets daily, painting murals and interacting with interested viewers. The five completed murals were celebrated at a dance party at which Fairey presided as DJ.
On Thursday evening, February 2, Dallas Contemporary invited curator Pedro Alonzo to interview the artist. Peter Doroshenko, the director of the museum, estimates that 500 of the 560 people in attendance had never previously stepped foot inthe museum. As Fairey walked into the main part of the raw warehouse space, after signing books for an hour, the room was completely quiet.
Alonzo asked him how he feels about working outside. “I enjoy working outside; it engages members of the public that don’t necessarily go to galleries or museums … and, maybe makes people that do go to museums pay a little bit more attention to what’s going on in the street, so it’s this cross-pollination that’s happening.”
As I scanned the audience, I saw a lot of young people wearing Obey clothing (Fairey’s brand) and raptly awaiting the voice of their hero. Fairey spoke of his own heros, the bands and musicians that resonated with him as a teenager: “The Clash and a few other punk groups had a great sense of style and seemed like they were enjoying their lives. It was cool to care, and that made me want to care even more … in order to be socially conscious and engaged, it shouldn’t be drudgery.”
Fairey’s punk roots still inform his ideology. Often, his work has a specific call to action yet the work is never a simple endorsement. In using a palette based on propaganda posters, he begs the viewer to question the message as well as the platform. In Dallas, his murals have messages like “Peace” and “Rise Above.” While Shepard was setting up to paint, I asked him about these seemingly straightforward, non-confrontational messages.
“Everything in life is a little bit of a balance between being soothing and inspiring and confrontational and agitational. I’m taking an approach that is absolutely core to my practice and my values… but also, not going to make the lives of the people who work at the museum more difficult.”
Fairey is no loose cannon. He is rebellious for a purpose, but also respectful for that same purpose: to get his art out there without compromising what he believes.
An audience member at the museum asked him: “What happens to a rebellion when the rebels win?”
He responded with a humorous bit about how power corrupts and how he is now a bastard. And then with a serious tone, he said: “When Nirvana became popular, I was psyched because hair metal got pushed off the radio … I like it when rebels win.” In an interview with Peter Simek the next day in the Dallas daily blog, D, he elaborated on this theme: “When Nirvana came on the radio, I wasn’t an outsider-elitist who was like, ‘Oh, well, now more than five people know about Nirvana, I hate them, they sold out because they resonated.’ Resonating is not selling out. Selling out is compromising your values to pander to the lowest common denominator.”
Fairey isn’t the only recipient of the “sellout” epithet. It seems to attack any artist with a wide level of merchandising: Keith Haring, for instance, with whom Fairey shares methodology. “Other artists had been accusing me of selling out since my paintings started selling,” Haring is on record as saying. “I mean, I don’t know what they intended me to do: Just stay in the subway the rest of my life?”
In setting up their respective Pop shops, Haring and Fairey both wanted affordable wares available to the people. The market can be populist or else it will be elitist. Fairey wants his designs accessible, to function on a viral level, through stickers, tee shirts and posters. If art is about engagement, then it should be a sign of success that Doroshenko is receiving an unprecedented number of “thank you” emails and calls from the Dallas community for this exhibit. Commercial success in relation to an artist’s integrity is an important discussion, but the proof of integrity is in the work: the streets of Dallas have a far richer dialogue, thanks to Shepard Fairey.