Shepard Fairey is fully aware of the criticism his work has received since his Obama "Hope" posters brought his art from the street to the world stage (and now the courtroom, but that's another story). In town for the opening of his new exhibition at Deitch Projects, Fairey took the stage at the Brooklyn Museum Sunday afternoon to discuss the themes for his latest work, the difference between street art and advertising and why some people call him a pop-culture hijacker for using existing art and photographs as a basis and inspiration for his work and a sellout for producing mainstream consumer art.
"Those people either have trust funds or jobs that don't matter to them," says Fairey, whose experiment with a newspaper photo of Andre the Giant -- an inherently meaningless image he has been plastering all over the world since 1989 as a way of challenging the public to question what they see (especially in advertising and politics) -- he considers a success because of the many ways in which it has been interpreted.
Fairey says the evolution of the Andre the Giant has a Posse sticker was subtly influenced by another '80s WWF superstar: Rowdy Roddy Piper and the film "They Live," in which the former wrestler starred. Piper's character comes into possession of sunglasses which allow him to see that in reality the billboards and advertisements littering the landscape are actually directives of control such as "Marry and Reproduce," "No Independent Thought," "Consume," "Conform," and, of course, "Obey," which obviously struck a chord with Fairey, who has been sticking the word under Andre the Giant and just about everything else for the better part of the last two decades.
For those who interpreted Fairey's work as a rejection of capitalism and now consider him to be a "sellout" because of his commercial success, he has something to say to them too: "I'm participating in what I'm critiquing and that makes some people uncomfortable," he says. Although he does admit that the Obama posters -- which was a "sincere endorsement" and started just like any of his other projects, by printing 20 or so posters and distributing them guerrila style -- "may not have been the best thing for my brand," Fairey, who studied design and is married with two young children, does not see a dichotomy between the message of his art and his professional achievements. "I'm dealing with [capitalism] in a way that is as productive as possible."
Fairey says that his May Day exhibit (it will be the last exhibit to be held at Deitch before it closes) embraces several of the themes most important to him. Opening day, May 1st, is International Workers' Day (street art has always been about empowering people, says Fairey) and symbolic of spring, which he sees as "an opportunity for us to shape things into what we want." But "may day" is also a distress call, and on stage Fairey concedes Obama may not be living up to his devoted followers high expectations ("but then I hear McCain say something that's the most insane thing I ever heard and I think 'We could be in worse shape,'" he says).
Fairey is also using the opportunity to pay homage, as he often does, to artists he admires. The mural that he put up on Houston at Bowery last week include tributes to Jasper Johns' iconic flag and target paintings. Fairey overheard some people say that the mural looks like an ad for Target Corporation, a criticism that Fairey shrugs off as yet another example of the public's blind acceptance of pervasive corporate images.
"If there's no street art, there should be no advertising either," he says to much applause.