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  • Writer's pictureLyla Bhalla-Ladd

Tear Down This Poster: ‘ICONS’ by Shepard Fairey

Shepard Fairey’s newest exhibition piece depicts an older symbol of his work, this time in a light that tributes to its time on the street.

Los Angeles, CA

When Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon” closed London Sotheby’s “Frieze Week,” it sold for $1.4 million. Then, it self-destructed via a shredder installed within the frame. Three years later, its shreds resold for $25.4 million, triple its expected new value. 

Outside of Banksy’s pranks, the art scene is becoming increasingly more interactive, with or without the permission of the artist. Climate protestors are throwing cans of soup on Van Goghs and gluing their hands to Monets. Many patrons of the arts consider these acts vandalism. Still, Shepard Fairey’s newest exhibition, “ICONS,” suggests that interaction with art, even through vandalism, contributes to the legacy and value of a piece. It seems the anonymous Banksy buyer would agree.

Fairey gives new meaning to the life cycle of art through his “ICONS” series. In this exhibition, he depicts iconic social and political figures like Kurt Cobain, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Muhammad Ali. All of which are in his signature primary colors and comic-like shadows, each surrounded with symbols of their cultural significance. Among these subjects, Fairey interlaces his own “OBEY” campaign faces. Using the proximity to cultural icons, Fairey elevates his works, specifically in their street art form. The OBEY face becomes iconic once it has lived as a poster in the street, torn and weathered, among us. 

Subliminal Projects in Echo Park hosted the new series of hand-embellished “mono-engravings,” screen prints on wood and metal, hand-painted multiples (HPMs) and modular works. Fairey utilizes his same primary color palette with black and white to construct the entirety of the silkscreen prints. His use of shape and collage layering forms a background and subtle underlayer made of newspaper clippings, headlines and slogans beneath each icon’s gaze. The viewer faces off with the icons, each surrounded by their respective legacy. 

In the company of the portraits lies the OBEY face in different states and forms. Six OBEY mono-engravings all depict the same face in an alternate setting. One lights the face in concentric triangles, another depicts the poster torn and scratched. 

One piece in particular, “Enhanced Disintegration,” hangs on the long gallery wall that spans the whole of the Subliminal Projects gallery. Between a Frida Kahlo and a “Peace is Radical” print, this OBEY face is the same, classic, silkscreen print from 1989 reimagined out in the world. The face lies just barely detectable underneath and around a layer of lifted paint and battered edges, depicted as torn halfway from the top right corner. It stands center while the thick frame around the stark expression continues the tears and scattered other marks. In “Enhanced Disintegration,” Fairey weathers the face in a combination of natural erosion and human interaction. The piece even steps back in perspective so the poster does not take up the whole frame, allowing its surroundings to be a part of the art. 

In his manifesto, “Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989,” Fairey describes his OBEY sticker campaign as an “experiment in phenomenology,” a philosophical study that German philosopher Martin Heidegger defined as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Within his manifesto, Fairey encourages viewers to interpret the OBEY symbol as they see fit as it “has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. ” In prioritizing the viewer's interpretation, Fairey raises the art’s position once it has been seen. The viewer is a key player in the purpose and being of these prints. 

In another mono-engraving, part of a series of over 30 pieces, he dares the viewer to buy it and give into “the propaganda,” even writing “this is a con.” Continuously quoted for bringing art to the people, rather than expecting people to come to the art, Fairey taunts the viewer to admit the power that symbols have — particularly when they implicitly do not have meaning.

Fairey also explains that beyond embracing many interpretations, “there’s a relationship between the creativity and the destruction that are part of a healthy symbiotic cycle. It’s… a necessity when you’re working in street art because a lot of what you do is going to disappear.” 

Within street art, the expectation of wear and tear on stickers and posters is typical. Fairey pushes this norm by cherishing the poster’s new physical form, post-original display. Embracing its life cycle, “Enhanced Disintegration” takes on new life that brings its years of exposure with it. 

In letting these images “manifest themselves,” the torn-down poster becomes more iconic because it has been interacted with — seen and acted on. Simultaneously amongst the greats and in the street with the people, OBEY is a mirror, reflecting its audience and their reactions. Fairey takes OBEY’s controversy and puts it back on the canvas, giving the face new life, and now, icon status. 

“ICONS” is on view at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park, Los Angeles through Dec. 30 of this year. 


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