Art Review: Shepard Fairey “Salad Days” Exhibition. A selection of art by Shepard Fairey from
1989 to 1999 at the Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA, June 16, 2018 -
October 7, 2018. Authored by Adrian Ormsby.
Shepard Fairey is a Los Angeles based artist who has emerged as one of the foremost
street and graffiti writers, turned fine artist and muralist, over the last two decades. He is most
well-known for his Hope poster of President Barak Obama produced during the 2008
Presidential election season (figure 1) and most recently his We the People series of posters for
the 2017 Women’s worldwide protest March in January 2017.
In June 2016, the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan would organize
an exhibit of his works curated by Director Andrew Blauvelt with assistance from the Library
Street Collective Gallery in Detroit, Michigan, that would extend over a four-month period. The
exhibit, was hung in the Wainger Gallery of the Cranbrook Museum and would focus
specifically on Fairey’s first decade of artistic practice from 1989 to 1999, which would have its
roots in the “graphic language and philosophies of the punk scene.” Following a critical
exposure to Punk music as a teenager, Fairey would be intrigued by the way this popular music
genre shaped and influenced attitudes and popular culture and would quickly adapt “punks biting
and playful graphic strategies” to his own fledgling artistic work.” Fairey would see himself “as
an outsider, living the art version of the punk mantra Do it Yourself.”
The Fairey exhibit would dovetail a synchronous and much larger exhibit at the
Cranbrook Art Museum titled Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986,
hung in the Main, North and Larson Galleries of the museum, spanning the same four-month
period. This exhibition would draw from an extensive collection of more than 500 pieces from
the collection of Andrew Kirvine, covering rare works of punk and post-punk bands from the
Sex-Pistols, Blondie and the Ramones to Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and B-52. Punk’s
irreverent use of parody and satire in their music to undermine authority and upend popular
culture, would be reflected in art of the 1980’s such as, artist Jim Reid’s parody of an American
Express card advertisement using the Sex-Pistols to reference the relationship between big
business interests and commercial music (figure 3). The biting and playful graphic strategies,
including the guerilla-style poster sniping and unapologetic individual expression, would be well
illustrated in this exhibit (figures 4,5,6) and would connect well with the powerful influence
these images would have on the next generation of young artists, such as, Shepard Fairey.
In the spirit of the spontaneous and subversive DIY(Do-it-yourself) manner of Punk,
Fairey would create early in his career, a key visual symbol for his work by appropriating a
newspaper image of professional wrestler Andre the Giant, that he would stencil on to
a sticker that would ultimately acquire iconic status and transition in the mid-1990’s to his Obey
Giant series of images, now seen in cities all over the world.
This symbolic image would visually express Fairey’s distrust of political and commercial messaging following his viewing of John Carpenter’s movie of 1988, They Live, portraying the power of subliminal
messages implanted in commercial advertising and mass media of daily urban life. The name of the exhibit, Salad Days, was derived from the title of a 1985 punk rock album of the same name, referring to the phrase spoken by Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra would use this phrase as she laments her past intimate relationship with Julius Caesar while in her youth.
On entry to the exhibit, one is shown a repeating series of Obey Giant images
accompanied by a large, bright red arrow pointing the way into the gallery with the words OBEY
– ATTENTION followed by the Obey Giant image. Multiple images showing the
variations of the Obey Giant theme, are then displayed, including images of
police, the digital device (at the time the home computer) and the subversive response of via the
paint spray can, a potent symbol of graffiti writing.
An impressive photomontage takes up an entire wall of the gallery, showing the myriad
of locations of the Obey Giant in cities throughout the world (figure 17). Two images in
particular caught my attention, the first was a red and black horizontally striped image of an eye,
with the word OBEY in the background and an Andre the Giant image in the middle of the pupil
with the caption “YOU ARE UNDER SURVEILLANCE” written in bold block letters across
the bottom. This image reinforces the notion of secret government and commercial surveillance. The second image is a screen photoprint of a 1970’s television set with the words Giant, Advertisement and Obey written on the screen, reinforcing concerns about subliminal messages in advertising. Both these images raise questions about increasing political and commercial surveillance and scrutiny in the lives of ordinary citizens. As I reflected further on these images, some going back almost twenty years, they also portend and reflect ongoing contemporary concerns that resonate with the millennial generation, such as, racial profiling, police brutality, secret government surveillance through digital devices and the secret sharing and selling of private information, such as buying preferences, to businesses and advertisers.
Calling into question issues of privacy, security and safety in Cyberspace, especially Social
In summary, Salad Days was a jarring and thought-provoking exhibit, demonstrating
through innovative graphic imagery, themes of political and commercial intrusion into everyday
life, compelling the viewer to question received notions of trust and faith in governmental and
commercial authority. Connecting this exhibit to the accompanying Punk music exhibit at
Cranbrook Art Museum was the perfect means of demonstrating the influence of the Punk Rock
visual aesthetic, as seen in Punk Rock posters and album covers, to the visual aesthetic of the
next generation of young artists, such as, Shepard Fairey. This retrospective exhibit of Fairey’s
work, at a critical early point of his artistic career, would call into question ongoing and
contemporary concerns and notion of increasing political and commercial surveillance and
scrutiny in the lives of ordinary citizens.
1. Fairey, Shepard. Covert to Overt. Rizzoli International Publications, New York. 2015