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Reframing 'the Dream' Shepard Fairey uses street art to protest destructive forces of U.S. capitalism

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Shepard Fairey was born in Charleston, attended Porter-Gaud School and went on to develop an immediately recognizable street-art style derivative of Soviet propaganda and commercial imagery, especially advertising. He became internationally known because of his Barack Obama "Hope" poster and the copyright controversy that thrust Fairey into the headlines.

He likes to recycle certain motifs and draw from popular culture, employing the aesthetic of graphic design. Fairey inserts in his work familiar visual elements such as allegorical figures, oil wells, paint cans and signage, but he often presents them in a disturbing context that forces the viewer to confront a challenging social or political issue.

He felt limited by his home state, and ultimately relocated to Los Angeles where he has developed his signature style, his brands and his business enterprises. But he looks back on his Charleston years as formative and influential.

"Growing up in Charleston, I didn't have any perspective on anything else," he said. When he went to Washington, D.C., for the first time at age 6 to visit family, it threw him for a loop. "I remember being stressed out that everyone was in a hurry and no one seemed to care that you would be trampled underfoot." Or so it seemed to the young boy.

He loved to draw and paint from an early age, and his father's interest in the outdoors was an early influence.

"Dad was into duck hunting and nature and always wanted me to look at all the wildlife and plant life," Fairey said.

But Charleston's biggest impact on him was social. "I had a vague feeling of dissatisfaction in grade school. By middle school, I got into punk rock and skateboarding."

His hormones flared. "The social structure of Porter-Gaud, and my world in Charleston, (adhered to a) rigid hierarchy. I just felt sort of constricted by it."

Skateboarding and punk rock were not so much manifestations of his rebellion as they were his attempt to conform with peers, he said.

"But I was passionate; they moved on," Fairey said. "For the first time I was uncool, and I was faced with a decision: Do I want to do what I'm doing and be uncool, or conform?"

He questioned power and authority, and insisted on being creative according to his own terms, he said.

"So in a way, Charleston pushed me to take a stand for things that I believed in, and that's been really valuable for me."

His political awakening jibed with his artistic development. His Porter-Gaud art teachers took him to Italy during his freshman year, and that opened his eyes. He was learning the techniques - silk-screening, collage, stenciling, printmaking - that would solidify his reputation years later.

So when he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was a few steps ahead of his peers, he said. "I wasn't waiting until college to learn, I was actually learning those things from sixth grade on."

He had put himself on a path that led away from home.

"Too much of Charleston art felt quaint at the time," he said. Marshscapes and church steeples failed to fire his imagination. "I wanted to do art that was more political and about people's struggles." For that, he needed a cosmopolitan city with a substantial support system.

After eight years in Providence, R.I., Fairey moved to L.A. In the years since, he has been involved in starting a guerrilla marketing company (BLK/MRKT Inc.) and a design agency (Studio Number One); a magazine (Swindle Magazine, co-founded with Roger Gastman); a gallery (Subliminal Projects); and a clothing line (Obey Giant).

In 2006, he joined the ad agency Project 2050. And he has been making lots of art.

His one-man show "E Pluribus Venom" made a splash at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in L.A. in 2007. Two years later, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston mounted "Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand," the first museum survey of his work.

There have been numerous album covers, advertisements, street art campaigns and posters, the most famous of which was the Obama "Hope" poster. Fairey shows no signs of letting up, nor is he much interested in toning it down.

These days, he's exploring political and economic themes that draw attention to the destructive forces of capitalism.

The current show is "about the decline of the American Dream and the way in which these symbols of Americana have been manipulated to keep people believing that that dream is alive rather than reveal that it's further out of reach in the last 30 years," he said.

So he toys with the iconography of capitalism, creating a form of visual protest that shows "how big business manipulates democracy" and how democracy can fight back in the form of rebellious street art.

The temporary murals hark back to Fairey's rebellious early days as a skateboarder and student of Heidegger's phenomenology, which is the philosophical study of structures of experience and consciousness.

In Fairey's street art experimentation, he often presents images imbued with no particular meaning or significance (Andre the Giant, directives such as "obey," familiar shapes and forms like stars or paint cans), and allows those images to manifest themselves in the landscape and generate a spontaneous public response.

In so doing, passersby recognize words, forms and pictures that are not typically made to be so noticeable.

"People will stumble across the art in same way they would encounter advertising or other things in their daily travels," he said. But they will be confronted with a political message.

Art and commerce surely can work together, he said. Indeed, Fairey is by all definitions an ardent capitalist who, more than most, walks the line that separates fine art from merchandise. But he does want to see a softening of society's commercial obsessions. What's needed is "conscientious capitalism," Fairey said.

"Conscientious capitalism rewards merit and ingenuity while at same time advancing compassion," he said.

In other words, making money is fine, but not at the expense of human well-being. "Capitalism needs its referees," he added.

Sloan noted that Fairey has often been criticized for "selling out," but he rejected the claim that artists who are commercially successful are somehow lesser artists.

"No one said to be an artist you have to starve. Where is it written?"

Remarkably, Fairey, now 44, has been able to maintain his street cred even as he has achieved enormous commercial fame, Sloan said. And he has done so while assuming significant risk in mounting large shows and producing big public murals meant to generate conversation.

"It takes a lot of chutzpah to put it out there," Sloan said. "You better have something to say."

Fairey said he likes to use, and subvert, accessible visual language and familiar imagery, just as Rene Magritte or Marcel Duchamp did in the early 20th century, and just as Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns and others did in the middle of the century.

"People make art for different reasons, and it can be multifaceted," he said. "It's important to make a compelling picture, that's the top priority, but then what other layers it can have, what other agendas it can serve, that can be multidimensional."?Fairey said he likes the idea of enabling others to project their biases and perspectives onto a neutral image.

"But, for me, there is a point to most of my pieces, that if someone pays close attention, they might get the concept."

Often, he is hijacking an aesthetic (advertising, Americana, propaganda) and reframing it with the hope of provoking skepticism, he said.

"A lot of my work has made people angry," Fairey admitted. His 2003 show "This is Your God," which presented greed as religion, was purposefully hyperbolic but surely touched on some uncomfortable truths.

"A guy came to my show; he was very, very mad, and at the opening was pushing me. Critiquing aspects of capitalism and the worship of money was making him confront things he didn't want to confront."

His poster "America: Where God Saves & Satan Invests in Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines" generated a lot of hate on social media, said Fairey, a self-proclaimed religious agnostic. "Stockpiling things designed only to kill people is not a good reflection of Christian values. It comes down to people not wanting the mirror held up."

Fairey has been arrested 16 times for making street art, once in Charleston where he had to pay a $280 fine. He had put up an Andre the Giant poster on an electrical box on East Bay Street in 1996 and got caught. Back then, $280 was a lot of money, he said.

"I've experienced a lot of what I would call selective enforcement," part of a larger fear campaign conducted by authorities, he said.

"When people are afraid of a certain group (Occupy Wall Street, Muslims or African Americans, for example), it's easy to vilify and persecute."

But the point of street art is that it's illicit, illegal, unsanctioned. This is part of what gives it its power. So Fairey continues to do it (even if the current Charleston murals were approved by the city).

"I've had a lot of things happen that were pretty intense," he recalled. "I had to jump from a two-story building to a pole and slide down to escape." He's cut himself on barbed wire. He's sprained his shoulder. He's battled rain and wind and cold and heat.

"I enjoy the challenge of doing these things," he said. "One of the reasons street art appealed to me in the first place is that some of the daring translates to the viewer."

In the end, though, Fairey's daring, in-your-face art is really about compassion.

"If there's a belief I have it's that people can transcend the darker side of fear (and) greed and be awesome to each other," he said. "Don't give God credit or make God take the blame, be accountable for your own behavior."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.

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