Shepard Fairey's "Salad Days" Exhibition

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

Media.

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.


#shepardfairey #contemporaryart #dkhgallery #NewYorkStreetArt #streetart #detroitartistsexposed #streetartfever #dkhgalleryscootergirlblog #dkhgallerymelbourne

References

1. Fairey, Shepard. Covert to Overt. Rizzoli International Publications, New York. 2015

2. https://cranbrookartmuseum.org/exhibition/shepard-fairey-salad-days-1989-1999/

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