Many regard Shepard Fairey as one of the godfathers of the modern urban art scene and he's widely known as one of the hardest working men in the business. His Obey Andre the Giant figure can be found all over the world, oftentimes in some surprising locales. Unique stencil, collage, photography and painting techniques have made him possibly the worlds most well-known street artist.
Fairey's latest venture is taking on the art world as he continues to move his pieces into gallery environments. For those of you who missed the show in New York City you'll have a chance to view his work across the pond in London 1-25 November 2007 at Stolenspace. Named Nineteeneightyphoria, it's his inaugural show in London, arguably the street art capital of the world. Comprised of a range of artworks, mostly awesome in scale, it's an overt reference to the surveillance culture of Orwell's 1984 and where better than just under the Eye and Big Ben. Fairey harnesses his counter culture reputation to question the cultural paradigm post 9-11.
In the midst of all his preparation for the show Shepard graciously offered us some time on the phone. Even over the wires, it was apparent that he's a genuine and passionate individual. We had a great conversation...
So this is your first time exhibiting your work in London?
Well, not exactly. This is my first solo show in London since 1999 and I've been here a few times since putting up some stuff around town. Inaugural makes it sound a bit more special. At the same time, I think Londoners usually only see my stuff online so it will be nice to go there and show my stuff, especially in the large scale that I'm working with right now. And London's a great city! Any excuse to visit is good enough for me.
London, in my opinion, is the center of the street art world right now, especially with the likes of Banksy and his sucess. I'm observing a paradigm shift there more than anywhere else as far as street art, it's value and cultural relevance. London is even starting to loosely protect some of Banksy's work around the city. It is obviously the place to be right now when it comes to this sort of stuff.
I caught your recent show in New York City, what are you doing for this show, anything different?
I am building upon my New York show. Printing my own intricate wallpapers, using some old stencils, making some new ones. A big inspiration for me lately has been Rauschenberg's pieces, so I try to bring that same aesthetic and feel to my collage work. Just very organic, colorful but detailed. I've also been working my brush skills into my work a bit more these days. I mean I always painted, I actually studied illustration and painting in school, but now I have a bit more time to do it all. I'm not just slapping these pieces up on a wall outside where it might be taken down in a few hours so I work at it a bit more.
I have to remember that this is for an audience that will be inspecting my work more closely. So I take my time with it, fill in more details with my brush.
Any difference internally or superficially now that you're increasingly finding yourself in gallery environments?
Firstly, to satisfy the gallery and related components, the pieces need to be strong enough to buy. I want the gallery to be happy with me. Even more than that, they have to be good enough to look at all the time. My pieces on the street, you will just pass in the car or walk by, you're only dedicating a few seconds worth of attention. However, I always have in mind that whoever decides to buy the piece needs to look at it everyday so the work needs to represented in that same light. That right there is rather daunting. Because of this, I obviously put much more time and detail into my work when exhibited in a gallery. I want them to be able to see something new with every look.
Overall being shown in galleries has catalyzed an evolution in my work and things are coming out that I didn't notice before because I'm spending more time with my pieces. It's been a great experience.
So what are the differences in technique or preparation? Do you approach pieces you make for the street and gallery differently?
Well, in my opinion, with street art, anything and everything is a gift and at the same time temporary. At the most basic levels the approach is different because you don't know how long a piece will last on the street. I love the process, but honestly, who wants to sweat it out for several weeks and then have a piece vandalized or taken down two minutes after you put it up. It's a delicate balance of quality and quantity.
That said, there is an element of street art that I obviously love and isn't found in the gallery setting. For me, it's mainly the texture that cannot be recreated in a gallery setting. For example I'll press a sheet up onto a wall and the brick texture will seep through. This now becomes an added natural component to the piece. You can't recreate that in a gallery! I love that art on the street has its own life, evolves and develops on it's own. It's a sort of beautiful chaos.
Also in a gallery setting all of the works are placed in one locale which is very different than in the street. This challenges me to connect the bodies of work with a subtext.
So what is Nineteeneightyfouria and the subtext of the show?
It's about people being in love with war, especially post 9/11. It really scared me how rearing and willing we were to fight, to "hunt them down." With that came a major loss in privacy and a steady movement towards a scene you would find in Orwell's 1984. Surveillance cameras, phones tapped, the whole bit. It's fitting this show is in London, 'cause they have surveillance everywhere.
There is also all this double speak and play on words by politicians that inevitably comes out through my work. You know we could go on and on about this, but you get the gist, we need to change things.
Getting back to the Gallery setting, anything you don't like about the experience?
Well, I love street art, always have. I love the process. Sometimes I'll even make a stencil to use once for a gallery show, which some of my friends think is a little crazy. I put up my gallery exhibitions with the same tools of production, painting, stencils, screen printing, etc.
On the street it's free and you can tear it down, but in the gallery its expensive and untouchable. I want to demystify the god-like untouchable artists that are oftentimes shown in galleries. Anyone can do it, but a lot of people don't realize this. It's all fairly simple, these production methods. If you have the motivation, drive, know what you want to do and have a few good ideas...I want to empower people with my artwork, especially in the gallery setting.