BYPASSING THE GATEKEEPERS
A Conversation with Artist SHEPARD FAIREY
By Lori Zimmer
Virtually every person in America now knows who Shepard Fairey is, or at least one work of his in particular. Thanks to his Obama “Hope” poster (and subsequent AP lawsuit), the artist transcended the art world spotlight, and was thrust into the home of the average American.
Being in the pocket that is the New York art world, I sometimes forget that probably up until the “Hope’ poster, most of America couldn’t tell the difference between graffiti and street art, and most likely didn’t care enough to. Street art as a movement has been barreling toward its peak, now being the subject of world class museum exhibitions, high ranking Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, and mimicry by the advertising industry. Everyone and their brother now “does street art,” if I had a dollar for every street artist I met, I’d be a rich lady.
Although Shepard was not the first, and may not command the highest prices, he is definitely the most well-known, and maybe the most accessible. He and his crew hit most major cities with his OBEY wheatpastes (including my old roof deck), and most of them remain, the business or building owners seeing their addition as more good than vandalism. Kids worldwide order his Andre the Giant stickers and stick them around their town. (I was even such kid in 1994, when my pen pal from Providence sent me a pack of early Andre Has a Posse stickers, not ever imagining I’d grow up to work with him on several shows–what a coincidence.) But beyond the street, it has always been important to Shepard to make his work available to all his fans, making low cost prints for the kids, in addition to his gallery work.
Totally skipping the overly discussed Obama/AP topic, and leaving any conversation about “revolutionaries” aside, I wanted to know what art and artists inspire this artist, business man, gallery owner, designer and occasional DJ, and get his thoughts on his foothold in the street art pages of future art history books.
Lori Zimmer: Firstly, you have a new show coming up in June! Can you tell us a little about that?
Shepard Fairey: This May I have a show in NY of fine art prints I’ve been working on with Pace Prints. That show includes new works and some new variations on older works. There are some large format screen prints on collage and metal, as well as some techniques I’d never used before like paper making, relief plate printing, and manipulated relief plates as the art pieces themselves. A lot of the prints have additional hand work in them, so they could be called variable editions or Hand Painted Multiples.
In London in June I’m showing a range of recent works including new paintings and prints. I have not settled on a title yet, but I’m considering “London’s Burning” after what happened there last summer, and as a reference to the Clash song. I think the concept of anger as a force of change and/or destruction, depending on how it is channeled is a timeless concept. I’m hoping to do a good bit of street art in London too.
LZ: In your lifetime, “Street Art” has definitely made it to the scope of the fine art world. When you were first starting out, did you ever think it would gain this type of relevance?
SF: I did street art because it was more related to things I was comfortable with like the rebellious, D.I.Y. cultures of skateboarding and punk rock. I was not comfortable calling my work fine art, and street art required no approval. I’m glad the influence of street art has been recognized. I think street art has “trickled up,” which is fascinating. Street art bypasses the gatekeepers of the art world and takes the work straight to the people. The people like enough of it that the art world has had to address the demand. That reflects real democracy in my opinion.
LZ: Fast forward to the “Street Art” section of Art History textbooks 50 years from now. Clearly, there is a thick chapter on you, who else do you think history will remember, and future students will be taught about?
SF: That is kind of you. Of course, Haring and Basquiat as well as graffiti writers like Futura and Lee should be in there. They paved the way for everyone now. I think Banksy is very important, Twist (Barry McGee), Swoon makes beautiful work, and JR is the most ambitious street artist alive. He is literally changing swaths of the landscape with his work. There are tons of important street artists, but history tends to simplify. I love Space Invader’s mosaics.
LZ: What was collaborating with Patrick like for your Keith Haring piece of Patrick’s iconic photograph?
SF: Patrick is a tremendous photographer and lovely person. His portrait of Keith Haring holding the spray can is by far my all-time favorite photo of Keith. I was very happy that Patrick allowed me to make an art piece based on that. I made an art piece for Patrick as part of the trade and I’m honored to have our collaboration as part of his collection. Patrick has been taking great shots for 30 years and I still see him out at the most culturally relevant events. He’s dedicated and I admire that.
LZ: With Subliminal Projects, you play the role on the other side of the coin from artist: the curator and gallery owner. What do you look for as far as artists you choose to represent? Do you think you have a different perspective by being an artist yourself?
SF: I am looking to show artists I think are making great work as the first concern. In general, it could be called contemporary art, but sometimes we are showing career overviews of artists who have helped shape our culture. Telling the story of artistic and cultural evolution is almost as important as the art itself. There is a unifying spirit of populism to our program, but not a unifying aesthetic. Some of the artists we show are young and emerging, others are more established. I feel like I understand the struggles of being an artist trying to connect with an audience and survive financially. I also understand running a business and needing to cover the overhead. Art and commerce are inter-dependent, but making it symbiotic is not easy. I strive to turn people on to unknown artists and also show great artists that will have enough of a following so we can move work and keep the gallery open.
LZ: Do you collect art? What artists do you collect?
SF: I trade a lot with artists I’ve befriended and I have been able to afford to buy art pieces in recent years. I collect Barry McGee, Jim Houser, Dalek, Neckface, Winston Smith, Jamie Reid, Raymond Pettibon, Glen Friedman, Banksy, Space Invader, Retna, Ryan McGinness, Phil Frost, Thomas Campbell, Ed Ruscha (I have a couple prints), Evan Hecox, Kate Simon, Swoon, and others. I need more wall space, but I spent the money for wall space on art…how ironic.
LZ: Have you been wowed by any shows recently?
SF: Twist and Phil Frost did an amazing show at Prism in LA a couple years ago. I loved the “Art In The Streets” show at LA MOCA (not just because I was in it).
LZ: Which artists have inspired you over the years? Which artists would you want your fans to check out?
SF: Beyond all the artists I mentioned above, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Rodchenko, Barbara Kruger, Robbie Conal, Chuck Close, Robert Longo, Warhol (obviously), are all artists who have inspired me. There are too many to name, but I’m always discovering great art old and new. You can never know everything, except when you’re a teenager.
Shepard Fairey is a Los Angeles based artist, gallery owner, designer, DJ and dad.
Shepard Fairey interviewed by Lori Zimmer
Written by Lori Zimmer
Photography by Jon Furlong
Design by Marie Havens
All Photography by Jon Furlong