Archive for May 2008
Just off the corner of 1st and Stewart, and one block up from the Farmer’s Market. I’m not sure if this is an image that has been approved by Shepard Fairey. Perhaps he can confirm here on this blog if it is or isn’t. My first thought after seeing the image is that it’s an obvious rip off from the 1969 John Lennon / Yoko Ono billboard campaign in New York City and ten other cities around the world, which advertised: “War Is Over (If You Want It)”. Two problems with this Obey piece: (1) ah, no, the war in Iraq is not over; and (2) the “If You Want It” part of the slogan is kind of an important element to the social commentary. Without it, this piece seems to just be some weird delusion. The fact that “If You Want It” is not included is indiciative of our current social climate involving the Iraq War. Most people have not been touched personally by the war and therefore do not feel the necessity to sacrifice or take action to stop a war, at least not with the amount of fervor and dedication the anti-war movement in the sixties and seventies did against the Vietnam War. But…I digress.
Chances are you’ve seen this emblematic poster representing Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. I’ve seen images of the print all over the web, and prints of it around shop windows here in Seattle. The visibility of this poster across the country is the envy of every serious artist. And it’s no accident that it has had such a large audience. The creator of this Obama poster is none other than Shepard Fairey, better known as the creator of the iconographic Obey the Giant propaganda campaign.
What’s the deal? As I understand the cultural phenomenon surrounding Fairey’s work, it’s a matter of anti-propaganda, by way of employing the tools and craft of propaganda. Huh? Like a magician that gives away her secrets (cardinal rules for all magicians is never give away the secret of how a trick or illusion is done), Fairey creates prints and images about propaganda, which are themselves propaganda. When Fairey writes “OBEY” underneath his simplified images of the face of the French actor and wrestler Andre the Giant, he’s cluing the viewer in to the goal and purpose of every ad campaign ever created: capture the viewers attention and generate a reaction in the viewer/consumer, in a manner that the advertisers have engineered with the help of behavioral psychology. But those things have historically been subliminal. The viewer isn’t supposed to know that he’s being manipulated while he’s being manipulated to consume.
Despite giving away the secrets of his artistic ad campaign, or more appropriately put, because Fairey’s work gives away the secret, he has generated a wide audience for his work, which has grown so much that he has lost virtually all control of marketing his images and work. People post his work in the form of stickers and posters without his knowing consent all across the country. Surprisingly, that’s the whole idea, according to Fairey. Fairey’s case is a blissful wet dream for intellectual property lawyers, yet as far as I know he is unconcerned with damages that might be engendered as a result of other people’s infringement of his trademark.
Fairey graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in illustration. It was there that he began formulating the seeds of an idea based on the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In a 1990 manifesto, Fairey wrote that “the Giant sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as ‘the process of letting things manifest themselves.’ Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they become muted by abstract observation.”
Part punk, part advertiser, and part print maker / illustrator, a la the old Soviet style propaganda posters in the heyday of Communist Russia (I absolutely love seeing those old posters – anyone who appreciates the subject of design is sure to love those works, even though they advertised a brutal political regime), Fairey somehow found himself linked up with the Obama campaign during this long, long, long (did I say long?) presidential run. My understanding is that he created several print images and simply contacted the Obama team and asked if he could help out the campaign with his work. It isn’t difficult to see why they agreed. The work has a punch to it that is unmistakable.
“There’s an unequivocal sense of idol worship about the image,” wrote op-ed columnist Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times, “a half-artsy, half-creepy genuflection that suggests the subject is (a) a Third World dictator whose rule is enmeshed in a seductive cult of personality; (b) a controversial American figure who’s been assassinated; or (c) one of those people from a Warhol silkscreen that you don’t recognize but assume to be important in an abstruse way.” (I’m still waiting for some republican talking-head dildo to appear on Fox News and publicly correlate the image to the old Soviet propaganda posters and call Obama a communist.) “I wanted strong. I wanted wise, but not intimidating,” Fairey says of the look for his Obamas. The poster has become a must-have accessory among a certain subset of the candidate’s supporters, who have gobbled up more than 80,000 of Fairey’s posters and 150,000 postcard-size stickers since Super Tuesday.
What artist wouldn’t die to have 80,000 prints of her work published – purchased? In a letter from Obama to Fairey, he wrote in part “your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign.” Obama seems to get it. Fairey’s got the game of propaganda down pat, and the fact that he’s propagandizing an anti-propaganda, anti-corporate campaign I guess means he technically hasn’t “sold-out”. Aside from the social phenomenon his work has generated, he has also produced some aesthetically strong prints.
Kudos to Fairey, an art school dweeb that hit the big time.
P.S. to Shepard – now that I gave you your props, send me a print of Peace Mujer!
Robert Rauschenberg, Artist
Born October 22, 1925 at Port Arthur, Texas
Died May 13, 2008 at Captiva Island, Florida
Made multimedia constructions, convinced some people his work was art, many people wrote effervescently about his constructs.
Had very little, to no actual drawing or painting skill.
Rauschenberg is survived by his son, Christopher; a sister, Janet Begneaud; and his companion, artist Darryl Pottorf.
Philip Guston’s paintings from 1968 to 1980 were a substantial influence on my art education as a painting student at the University of Southern Maine. Like most art students at that time, paintings from history prior to the late 1800s were boring to me. (How foolish I was as a student.) Guston’s work seemed more relevant to our time, more immediate and understandable. This impression was certainly butressed by the fact that when I looked at Guston’s cartoon like paintings, I thought “I too could paint at least as good as that.” With Guston’s work, it conveyed to me that I could create art and that “great painting” (as defined by what was being exhibited in New York at that time) was possible for me, an unschooled outsider with no previous experience in art as a child. While the New York art scene concerned themselves with explorations of “high art” and “low art” and post-modernist painting, Guston’s work was a big permission slip for me to try many things in painting as a student, and to accept my own way of painting, whatever that might turn out to be at that time.
What I didn’t realize or see at first in Guston’s late works was what had been worked out by Guston in his previous phases of work as a muralist, and later as an abstract expressionist. Guston’s late works were, and are, deceptively simple. Yet they contain years of painting experience and decisions that he made during his previous two phases of work which he carried into his cartoon-like painting phase. His color palette: the reds, pinks, whites and dirty grays all came from his abstract expressionist painting. The short, staccato brushstrokes that he used to crudely define form in his cartoon paintings, were first used obsessively in his abstract works. The composing of his iconography, those klansmen, the clocks, rugs, shoes, cyclopic heads, etc.; the way he composed all those things in his paintings was first worked out in his prior mural works.
But then there were also new elements to his late work: the repetition of forms, piles and piles of disembodied, folded legs, rugs, shoes; all obsessively used again and again in painting after painting. Shoes were cocked at an angle so that the viewer could see the soles of the shoes, and the nails that attached the soles to the rest of the shoe were visible. Small rugs were often removed from the floor by a hand, or a series of hands, crudely clutching the rugs, trying to place the rugs under the shoes of the disembodied legs and set the world right again. Spider webs were spun all over the painted objects. The light bulbs with strings to turn them on and off hung in the painting without reference to where the bulbs came from. (Interestingly, the use of the light bulb by Guston was an icon of his actual experiences drawing and painting under dim light in his closet as a child, wherein he would hide his creative side from his family.) Everything was removed from its indigenous context, and cocked or turned slightly in a manner to give the viewer an unusal vantage point of the objects, as if the secret to the essence of the object could be found if you just viewed the thing in this way or that. This was probably the biggest aspect of Guston’s painting that I took from when exploring my own painting as a student. It gave me theoretical permission to take objects at will and place them in a self-composed environment, often without any conscious reason for pairing them together, if only to see what might happen in the painting.
Guston’s work was fun! Yet the amusement a viewer could experience with the look of the work and the creamy pinks and reds of his paints came with a serious element of doom or disturbance upon further inspection of the imagery. There was isolation in his works, the artist’s isolation, alone in his studio with only his imagination as subject and source of the work. While some of Guston’s work depicted an outside world, neighborhoods or street corners within some fictional urban environment, many of the late works are interior pieces, cluttered by his iconography that surrounded a disembodied one-eyed head (the eyes had eyelashes!) lying on the floors of his paintings, nervously looking out at the interior world it existed in. There is a seriously unsettling feeling to the works, despite the cartoonish style of the paintings. The things in this fictitious world had no intrinsic value. A clock had the same weight and value, as a spider, or a trash can, or a rug. It was all a collection of stuff, often a collection of garbage, that had been collected by the artist but now served only to clutter the living space of the artist, and haunt. The objects were often visually cute, (I could never resist the charm of how the soles of the shoes were painted, revealing the handiwork of the shoemaker), but also communicated a sense of hopelessness as well. To me, this is Guston’s nightmare of Pop Art, as if Pop had been tried and found wanting by Guston, and as the artists and advertisers and illustrators left to find some new aesthetic movement, they left behind reems and reems of garbage which had no worth whatsoever. (Guston refused to have his work exhibited in a gallery he previously exhibited in once the gallery began exhibiting Pop Art works.) Guston’s was a dark, caustic environment that, tellingly enough, I used as source material in my own painted environments, such as “Bitter Fruit” below.
Influence comes in many forms. In my case, It wasn’t exactly Guston’s style of painting (e.g. his cartoonish quality), but more in terms of the tone of his paintings, and the way he simplified forms and how he manipulated the perspective or vantage point from which to view his objects. On occassion I would steal an icon from him: In one of my paintings I painted a structure that resembled a Roman aqueduct with arched openings that divided the foreground and background. In the foreground space I painted garbage cans. The cans were “stolen” from Guston. Guston’s iconography was a treasure trove for art students like me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting how much of an influence his work has had on my development as a painter.