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A new exhibition surveys three giant decades in this iconic artist’s career

The art of Shepard Fairey is metaphorical, characterized with torn bits, layers, rips and markings, festooned with ornamental patterns and icons, and slathered with old news clips. It is a topography of the times we live in, often enveloping a face calling out to you, telling you the truth in a most darkly charismatic way.

While working on his latest mural in Miami at an elementary school just days before Art Basel opens, we got a chance to talk about the show, the evolution of his work and the beauty of Rubylith stencil cutting.

For most people, their knowledge of Shepard Fairey goes something like “Oh yeah, he’s the artist that did those Obey stickers that are on my kid’s skateboard and all over the place and did the Hope poster for Obama. But I think he got in trouble for that.” Such a crude reduction, like Yayoi Kusama being the polka dot lady or Jackson Pollock being the splattered paint guy

But even art snobs might wonder if there’s really something new or different to see in a show like the one called Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent and New Work at Over the Influence in L.A.’s Arts District. In short, yes. Much. A look at the layers will reveal why.

Shepard Fairey: Facing the Giant, installation view at Over the Influence Los Angeles

Right off the bat, we see the familiar in some new ways, like the placement of a tiny vintage Obey Giant sticker enshrined in a background and framing 15 times its size. And then a very disintegrated Obey Giant sticker gigantically enlarged and placed on canvas resplendent in all of its colorful, nearly camo pattern distortions from years of wear and tear. And then, boom, in the main gallery space, a display of more than 100 smaller works stuns you. The breadth of work, the diversity of topics, are all there, begging you to crouch up for a closer look. From an Andre the Giant/Jimi Hendrix mash-up to newer works of Maya Angelou and environmental activist “Kid Warrior” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. This on its own signals a blending of street art and fine art which is exactly the point.

“When I did the Damage Show [a self-organized pop-up in 2017] in L.A., we filled 20,000 square feet of space. It was very ambitious,” Fairey tells the Weekly. “There were big installations, we had a printing press. You really can’t do that frequently. So for this 30-year mark, I wanted to do several small shows, all fine art, in different locations. OTI has a great space which helped showcase me as a multi-platform artist rather than simply a street artist.”

Shepard Fairey in the studio (Courtesy of Over the Influence)

“I think when people see the painting and the layers, and complexities, it’s bringing the street and its energy inside to the white walls of fine art,” Fairey says. “There’s historical work not seen that also show techniques I’ve improved upon over the years (like 2007’s Grenade Girl), kind of like a band revisiting a song with better equipment and approaches.” The adjoining halls in the gallery show about 30 such multi-layered large mixed media canvases rendered with this intentionality. Many of these images are being shown for the first time as original 30 x 41-inch paintings as well. It’s a lot to take in.

Shepard Fairey at OTI

A look at a work called End Corruption highlights the layering and complexity Fairey references. With a theme focused on the influence of money on American politics, we see two suit-cuffed hands shaking together juxtaposed against a textured background. But a closer look shows a slightly contrasting image of the Statue of Liberty’s head surfacing in what is only about 5 percent of the entire artwork.

Then adjacent to that, another detail pops up, a newspaper article apparently about defense contractors and the war machine. The layers get deep. A muted but dynamic collage  that almost breathes seems like so many wheat paste posters on a warehouse wall over and over, ripped and distorted. There are many impressive sweeps of work on display, each causing you to zoom in on the details in addition to stepping back and taking it all in.

Shepard Fairey in the studio (Courtesy of Over the Influence)

Stark iconic contrasting images of Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson loom large on canvas, as mandala-like patterns flutter beneath their defiant visages. This is also so true for the confident, daring and mysterious image of the artist’s wife Amanda, in a piece titled Commanda, in multiple layers of red and black. “I wanted people to see a lot of the process — the Rubylith cuts and such,” Fairey says.

The gallery’s press statement will tell you that the show is “a dialogue between the 19- year-old punk beginnings of Shepard Fairey and his current life as a 49-year-old artist, activist, punk, father and husband who’s journeyed through trials both metaphorically and literally.” What it also demonstrates is that this is a man hard at work, with many things to say, who has not slowed down even as he has become that punk father (a rather successful one at that), and could be content with his impact to date.

Shepard Fairey mural, 2019 (Photo by Wyatt Closs)

Outside of this fine art work there are also the murals, which place public art on an axis with street art. There are now just over 100 of those dotted across the globe, including one most recently placed near Grand Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in downtown L.A., with the image Defend Dignity, which became iconic itself during the 2017 Women’s March as a protest sign du jour. The fact that the owner of the building was an Iranian immigrant only made this impressive 150-foot display that much richer. And there too, we see layers.

The Maya Angelou image in the OTI gallery was a template for what would become a beautiful large-scale mural at Dr. Maya Angelou High School, which was unveiled earlier this year. In this aspect, we get the true sense of jumping from one medium to another, seamlessly. “What I dig about him the most,” says Warren Brand of Branded Arts, whose firm has co-produced five murals with Fairey including at the Dr. Maya Angelou and RFK public schools, “is that he’s focused on creating thought-provoking art that fits within the cultural context of the community.”

Shepard Fairey

Even with these fine art bonafides, Shepard still loves giving out those stickers. But be the platform a sticker on a crosswalk, a fine artwork on white walls or a 150 foot mural on a building wall, the roar, the outrage, the punk spirit, the notion of facing giants real and metaphorical remains. Collectively, the faces have become a chorus or rallying cry made up of voices connected to each other, strip by rip.

Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent is on view at Over the Influence, 833 E. 3rd St.,  downtown; Tue.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through December 29; overtheinfluence.com.

Shepard Fairey: Facing the Giant, installation view at Over the Influence Los Angeles

Shepard Fairey: Facing the Giant, installation view at Over the Influence Los Angeles