Shepard Fairey in Boston: Obey Obama

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by Jay Gabler | March 9, 2009 •

The Institute of Contemporary Art likes to remind Bostonians that its new home, which opened in 2006, is the city’s first new art museum in a century. Boston had built up such a wealth of riches by the turn of the twentieth century that it could afford to rest on its laurels for a while, but the city proper was sorely in need of a first-class contemporary art museum. (Western Massachusetts has the fabulous—and fabulously inaccessible—Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; and there’s the fine DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, focusing on regional artists, in the Boston suburb of Lincoln.)

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A first-class contemporary art museum is what it got…at least, the physical infrastructure for one. The ICA was founded in 1936, but they’ve only just begun to acquire a permanent collection. For now, visitors can view a selection of the institution’s nascent but very well-chosen collection, see temporary exhibits, and enjoy the spectacular building itself. The building functions only adequately as a venue for exhibits, but makes exemplary use of its waterfront location, where it was immediately recognized as a beacon and a promise of what might be. (Boston is in the rare, and enviable, position of having more waterfront than it really knows what to do with. Imagine Duluth 20 or 30 years ago.) The ICA’s Mediatheque, if you can get past the pretentious moniker, is an extraordinary space, a room that drops toward the water from the building’s cantilevered fourth-floor gallery space. The Mediatheque’s plate-glass window points down towards the harbor, so you see only water until you descend a set of steps. As you approach the window, the full harbor view opens up before you.

Currently on display is the first solo museum show by Shepard Fairey, the American artist best-known for creating the widespread red-and-blue stylized image of Barack Obama (“HOPE”) but also responsible for the two-tone portrait of Andre the Giant disseminated far and wide in association with the word “OBEY.” The OBEY GIANT campaign began as a lark while Fairey was in college at the Rhode Island School of Design, then grew into a full-fledged project meant to comment ironically on propaganda and advertising. Fairey’s anti-propaganda agenda is very much in evidence at the ICA show, which includes OBEY-GIANT-branded images of Stalin, Lenin, and Mao—and, yes, George W. Bush, unsubtly fitted with fangs.

The ICA show was packed on the Saturday I attended, and I’m sure other weekends have been the same—the museum has scheduled a long run for the show, through August 16. A significant portion of that interest is undoubtedly due to Fairey’s association with Obama—on display is a brief thank-you note from Obama that seems to suggest he’s cool with stickers being slapped on stop signs, something it’s hard to imagine any previous president publicly admitting—and it’s hard to imagine the OBEY GIANT guy being given a major museum retrospective in the absence of that marquee achievement. (It’s an achievement that’s allowed Fairey to escape the sad fate of Robert Indiana—the LOVE guy from the 60s—though Fairey’s work also makes Indiana’s self-branding seem oddly prescient.) Fairey is certainly an accomplished stylist, but his graphic work isn’t leaps and bounds beyond what the average Joe or Jane down at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking couldn’t come close to pulling off. Fairey’s real genius is in branding himself, and we can be thankful that the 21st century art world allows everyone to acknowledge that. Andy Warhol, who’s been the hands-down favorite among artists’ role models just lately, is appropriately quoted on the ICA gallery wall: “Art is what you can get away with.”

Photos by Lipcan3 (top) and Wally Gobetz (bottom). Creative Commons.

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