Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shepard Fairy (1)

Brighton Avenue, Allston

Cambridge Street, Allston

In a way, it was almost an appropriate beginning to the Shepard Fairy exhibit at the ICA that he was arrested on opening night, right outside the museum. An artist who began his career with an underground sicker campaign of Andre the Giant’s face in 1989, his work has grown and continues to grow via guerilla tactics. America’s Bansky, Fairy’s work is all about being subversive, with most of his graffiti, posters and banners displayed on city streets without invitation. He’s always been about going outside the system, and Fairy is more than willing to own that, as his more than a dozen previous arrests make clear. His current exhibit (the first ever major retrospective of his work in a major museum) is a big step for this type of art, moving it from subversive to being acknowledged as legitimate – so it’s almost comforting to see that there is still plenty of rebel in him and his art.

While subversive art is nothing new - and in many ways Fairy's message is not entirely original either - there is an element of time and place that contributes to his success. Fairy’s contemporary style and visual language resonate today because he is communicating something that feels pertinent, accessible and authentic; three things that have been difficult to find altogether most of my life. It’s no secrete that the MTV culture that exploded throughout the 90s created an atmosphere of slick corporate imagery that continues to permeates our lives yada yada. But, just because we accept it (and even like some of it), does not mean there isn’t an undercurrent yearning for originality for those of us who aren’t hipsters or down with hard-core counter culture movements.

Moreover, even right here in Boston there is another casualty of a sometimes overly controlled trend. For example, we love our Citgo sign, but very soon it’s going to become one of the only relics from that era. As lesser-known neon signs break down they are not being replaced or fixed because of strict zoning laws no longer permit such things. Just as urban decay is something to be loathed, the opposite, sterilization of our streets and neighborhoods is similarly unnerving. There is something about a street of matching mailboxes and white front doors that I find plastic and claustrophobic.

For his part I think that Shepard Fairy’s work taps into these feelings within many of my generation. Fairy speaks with a voice that responds to both an ad saturated Time Square and a sterile suburban neighborhood, in a language that connects with a generation coming into its own, looking for direction and new thinking (with a touch of rebel, per usual).