Shepard Fairey's iconic “Hope” poster remains one of the most enduring symbols of Barack Obama's historic first presidential campaign. Contrast the piece with the “Make America Great Again” hats and mean-spirited Pepe the Frog memes from the 2016 election, however, and it serves as a stark reminder of just how unhinged so much of our political discourse has become.
Fairey, previously one of the art world's most vocal activists, stayed relatively quiet during last year's election season. Now he's ready to voice his opposition to Donald Trump's vision for America.
Starting Nov. 11, Fairey will hold his largest ever L.A. solo exhibit at a warehouse downtown. The show, a collaboration with Detroit-based gallery Library Street Collective, addresses today's pressing social and political issues through a series of new paintings, collages, sculptures and installations in addition to various “DIY tools of empowerment,” such as graffiti stencils and a running printing press.
Fairey says one of the exhibition's primary goals is to combat the creeping urge to retreat from the outside world and into our respective Instagram feeds.
“Apathy is a really big problem, and choosing sides via social media is not enough,” Fairey says. “You actually need to vote and be rigorous about understanding the deeper dynamics of issues that matter to you. And if you're a compassionate person like I am, [issues that] matter to people who might be more vulnerable than you are.”
The exhibit, which he's titled “Damaged,” takes its name from Black Flag's 1981 hardcore classic, a nod to Fairey's roots in punk rock and skateboarding. Inspired by the DIY aesthetic of artists such as Raymond Pettibon, who created the album art for Black Flag's early work, Fairey designed the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” sticker campaign while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1989. The rogue operation quickly evolved into the now ubiquitous, revolutionary-themed “Obey Giant” project and made Fairey one of the most prominent street artists on the planet.
“This isn't an anti-Trump show. This is a show about issues that I've cared about for years that are even more critical under Trump.” —Shepard Fairey
“Shepard's great genius is distribution,” says veteran California poster artist Robbie Conal, whom Fairey credits as an influence. “He's like Sherwin-Williams paint: He covers the earth.”
Conal collaborated with Fairey and fellow street artist Mear One on a series of satirical anti-war posters depicting President George W. Bush before the 2004 election. Conal says he's been impressed with Fairey's ability to penetrate the dialogue of popular culture. “He's very earnest and sincere about what he does,” Conal says. “I try to get him to have a sense of humor about it and, every once in a while, it succeeds.”
In his new work, Fairey has largely refrained from portraying Trump because doing so risks furthering the president's “image repetition and celebrity,” which the artist says is one of Trump's primary goals. “This isn't an anti-Trump show,” he says. “This is a show about issues that I've cared about for years that are even more critical under Trump.”
Like his well-received “We the People” poster campaign, which Fairey debuted on Inauguration Day earlier this year, many of the pieces featured in “Damaged” are meant to be empowering portrayals of marginalized people. The new posters incorporate striking portrait photography to highlight issues ranging from the demonization of immigrants to the high incarceration rate among African-Americans.
In the past, Fairey has run into trouble when incorporating existing images or photographs into his art. He famously sued the Associated Press in 2009 after the news organization accused him of copyright infringement for using one of its photographs of Obama as the basis for the “Hope” poster. While Fairey maintained that using the photograph was legally protected as “fair use,” he ultimately settled the dispute after admitting to misleading the court about which photo he had used.
“Damaged” comprises both original and transformative works that pull from a variety of references and photo-licensing sites, as well as direct collaborations with photographers. Fairey had been criticized in the past for failing to properly acknowledge the source of certain images associated with social movements, particularly those created by people of color. As an artist of privilege, his critics argued, Fairey stripped these images — such as a photograph of Black Panther leader Angela Davis — of their cultural context and often reduced them to commercial products. (In addition to selling prints of his posters, Fairey also founded the popular Obey clothing line.)
Fairey argues that he is not only immersed in the issues on which he chooses to comment but that he regularly works alongside grassroots organizations such as Black Lives Matter and raises money for social justice causes from the sale of his prints.
“I still get the 'We don't need a white savior' thing now and then, but I look at all of that as very counterproductive,” Fairey says. “I don't need to be the same color as someone else to identify with their humanity.”
Arlene Mejorado, an L.A.-based Chicana photographer who collaborated with Fairey for the “We the People” series, says she was familiar with the criticism and appreciated the way Fairey and his team reached out to her and other photographers of color to work on the campaign.
“I was worried that because of the type of photographer and artist I am, that something about [the series] wasn't going to sit right with people in my own community,” Mejorado says. “But I got a lot of good feedback from people who were inspired by it.”
The poster featuring Mejorado's photograph, titled “Defend Dignity,” depicts a Chicana educator and community organizer in Texas named Maribel Valdez Gonzalez. Mejorado says using an everyday citizen working for social justice as a subject for the piece sent an empowering message. “The campaign was very solution-based,” she says. “It represented hope and positivity.”
The poster, along with the rest of the “We the People” series, will be on display in “Damaged.”
At a time when political rhetoric seems to reach a new level of bombast by the day, Fairey says he wants to address injustice on a direct, human level. “At this point in my career I'm not going for just shock value,” he says. “If there's something [in my work] that's antagonistic, then there's a strong justification in my mind for it.”
While the revolutionary propagandist imagery Fairey is known for remains present in “Damaged,” many of the new pieces strike an aspirational tone reminiscent of 2008's “Hope” campaign. Fairey says he wants the work to encourage people to take an active role in the political process.
“Everything I do, my aspiration is to get people to think about things that they might not normally [think about] and then adjust their behavior,” Fairey says. “All I can do is try.”
“Damaged,” downtown location TBA; Fri., Nov. 11, 8-11 p.m. (through Dec. 17). lscgallery.com/upcoming-exhibitions.