Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Be Wild and Obey: Shepard Fairey in Naples

Report from… Naples

Shepard Fairey: #Obey at Palazzo delle Arti Naples (PAN)
December 6, 2014 to February 28, 2015
Via dei Mille, 60, 80121 Napoli, Italy

publicity for the exhibition under review
publicity for the exhibition under review

There is a vital distinction to be made between the kinds of works of art that are made to be shown in galleries and museums and what Joachim Pissarro and I have called “wild art” (in our 2013 book of that title from Phaidon Press), art that is initially presented outside this art world system. There is a great deal of wild art—for example, graffiti, tattoos and most of the art displayed in hotels and restaurants. But since in the contemporary art scene there is actually no significant difference in kind, besides location, between this wild art and art-world art, works of art can move between these two kinds of display sites. This distinction is important, however, because normally the art world—a system that relies upon exclusion to justify its aesthetic values—holds wild art at a distance. Occasionally, however, the distinction breaks down—and that is what has happened in this most instructive exhibition when Shepard Fairey’s graffiti was presented in a Neapolitan kunsthalle. The goal of what he calls his ongoing experiment in phenomenology, Fairey has explained, “is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment.” Thus his OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and “bring people to question […] their relationship with their surroundings.” He wishes to cause them “to consider the details and meanings of (these) surroundings. In the name of fun and observation,” a self-description that makes him sound like a modernist landscape painter or many other art museum artists.

Shepard Fairey, Uncle Scam, 2006.  Screenprint, 41 ? 29 inches, edition of 50.  Courtesy of the Artist
Shepard Fairey, Uncle Scam, 2006. Screenprint, 41 x 29 inches, edition of 50. Courtesy of the Artist

This large-scale exhibition provided the welcome opportunity to trace Fairey’s stylistic development. In 1997 and 1998 he did images of Stalin, Mao, Lenin, with the politically ambiguous “Obey” logo attached, ironical takes on images of familiar leftist heroes. Marylin Warhol (2000) made an explicit allusion to art-world art, a procedure which didn’t really come off, however, as this image superimposing a depiction of Warhol on a Warholesque picture of Marilyn Monroe is weaker than Warhol’s own depictions of Monroe or himself. Fairey was more successful in Malcolm X (2006) and his screen prints, Nixon Money, Mao Money, Lenin Money (2003)—punchier images with a clear political impact, as he was in his Uncle Scam (2007), Rise Above Cop (2007) and, most especially Two Sides of Capitalism: Good and Two Sides of Capitalism: Bad (2007) which complicate his earlier concerns by juxtaposing words and images. He became internationally famous for the advertising image of Barack Obama for the 2008 presidential race, an image of which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. Thanks to his fame, he was invited to do beautifully decorative all-over red images of Angela Davis, Arab revolutionaries and St. Mark’s Horses for his show in Venice, 2009. The stunning mixed media collages Eye Alert Cream and Eye Alert Red (2010), close ups of faces with a dollar sign in the tear and a skull reflected in the eyeball, represent a new, richly suggestive development of his portraits.

Like any successful art world artist, Fairey has a developed personal style. His posters looked great in this site. Street artists normally seek one-off effects—you see their graffiti, and then stroll on. But when wild art moves into a gallery, it inevitably gets seen differently, in the context of an artist’s development and, also, in relation to that of contemporaries. Although a gifted designer of visually striking two-tone frontal images, Fairey’s development is relatively limited in formal terms, and yet the introduction by stages of more complex subjects makes for a visually rewarding retrospective. He has moved a long distance from his striking point. It was appropriate, surely, that I discovered the exhibition not through publicity in some art magazine or web site, but by seeing his ad in the streets. Open your eyes and you will discover that there’s a lot of wild art out there! Palazzo delle Arti is located in the upscale neighborhood of Chiaja, the one place in graffiti-filled Naples where little street art is found. “#Obey” reveals how art is transformed when wild art become art-world art. And so, now, as you can see from the upscale catalogue, his art is found in many private Italian collections.

Shepard Fairey, St. Mark’s horses, 2009. Screenprint, 27-1/2 x 35-1/2 inches, edition of 250. Courtesy of the Artist
click to enlarge