I honestly don't remember when I first started noticing/paying attention to Shepard Fairey's enigmatic artwork, but it must have been in the early 90's. At the time, I was spending a lot of time in Soho (which hadn't yet been gentrified beyond all semblance of recognition) as an inglorious gallery-sitter. I remember seeing the "Andre the Giant has a Posse" sticker everywhere and not really getting it. That was swiftly followed by the mysterious "OBEY" posters. Again, I wasn't entirely sure what they meant, but I liked the clandestine and slightly ominous aesthetic of it all. I started snapping pics of Fairey's work whenever I saw it (the shot at the top of this post was taken on Mercer Street, I believe, and dates back to the summer of 1997). Gradually, I became a fan, even going so far as to buy a few prints. Most of them live in storage now, but you'll have to talk to my wife about that.
As Fairey's work expanded and word spread, his posters, stickers and stencils took on several different incarnations, and his images became increasingly more message-laden and politicized. At the same time, the merchandising wing of his operation went into full swing. Along with the artwork, you could suddenly buy "Obey Giant" t-shirts and collectibles (and I'll admit to having a few of each). I'll be honest, though. The sudden transparency of that move dealt a severe blow to the mystique of his work for me. Given the diversity of products and their "limited edition" cache, it almost seemed like Fairey's was borrowing a page from Gene Simmons' playbook. But given the causes he supported, the statements he made and the specific cultural figures he celebrated (everyone from Glenn Danzig and Darby Crash through Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky), I was still totally down with what Fairey was doing.
Marketplace-saturation, however, was starting to take hold. For a while, in the same manner as the ridiculous Von Dutch trucker-cap craze, "Obey Giant" gear had become ubiquitous. While its initial message was purposely vague and seemingly open to interpretation, it was becoming just a shallow cliche.
Of course, the now-infamous "HOPE" poster Fairey designed for the Obama campaign transformed him into a very public figure overnight. Almost at once, he became a folk hero, a media darling, a hip iconoclast and a whipping boy. His signature style is now everywhere. His once underground campaign seems now very decidedly above ground. The guerilla artist is now a celebrity.
In recent weeks, Fairey's work has made some flashy appearances and accompanying headlines. His latest show, a collection dubbed "May Day" is also the final installation, I believe, in the Deitch gallery down on Wooster Street in Soho. I'd been meaning to check it out since it opened, but hadn't had the time. With Peggy and the kids down in Texas for a week visiting my in-laws, I finally got over to Wooster Street on Saturday to check it out.
I did strike me as slightly odd that Fairey's graffiti-inspired artwork -- the same stuff which initially adorned the brick-faced facades of the streets of Soho -- was now hanging on a proper Soho gallery wall. In fact, to see Fairey's work, you don't even need to visit the gallery. It's still all over the streets. But that's a dichotomy I'll let the coffee table aesthetes and art historians debate. Regardless, I'm still a huge fan of Fairey's style and subject matter, and found the "May Day" show to be pretty cool. But as respectable as the work has arguably become, it still has its share of detractors. The street art community from whence he came now defiles his work and renounces him as a sellout. On the flip side of that coin, as EV Grieve noted, Fairey's "May Day" show was written up in the Times, and art critic Roberta Smith was, shall we say, less than entirely kind.
What do you think?