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The Big Picture
by Paul Hasegawa-Overacker
With his all-but-universal image of Barack Obama, the 28-year-old Los Angeles artist Shepard Fairey has become the first 21st-century artist to create the "Big Picture."

When is the last time we had an artwork that was as humongously famous and popular as a Happy Face? Most date to the 1960s: Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, Robert Indiana’s LOVE, and Che, though few know the name of the guy who took the original photograph, Alberto Korda. From the ‘80s we have Keith Haring’s radiant babies, barking dogs and dancing men.

The criterion for Big Picturedom is simple: the image has to be cool enough to be a t-shirt worn by people in, say, Mozambique. And musicians don’t count. 

So we have Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama, our own political icon, poster, t-shirt and bumper sticker all in one. Dynamic and memorable, the portrait shows its subject gazing up and off into the future, somber and thoughtful, the man clearly posed at his desk, as if he were looking up from work or study. For all his athleticism, Obama is an intellectual leader, just what we need. The colors are a starkly semiotic red and blue, with a highlight of off-white -- dove white?

As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey hit the streets and plastered his Dadaesque "Obey Giant" stickers, featuring an image of wrestler Andre the Giant, everywhere a skateboarder might be found, which is almost everywhere. Fairey was definitely a street artist with a nose for branding, and has since become successful doing commercial work as well as generally disseminating imagery with an amorphously anti-authoritarian tone.

As the motto of one of his companies, Obey Giant, puts it: "Manufacturing quality dissent since 1989." The economic success of his political imagery -- often using designs taken from classic communist posters and other left-wing agitprop -- has prompted accusations from the leftist critics that his t-shirts and posters represent bourgeois fashion and lifestyle choices rather than any kind of true political practice. But the distinction dissolves in the face of his Obama poster, a successful manifestation of populist sentiment if there ever was one.

Street art, fashion fads, grassroots politics and now fine art. Next month, Fairey makes his grand entrance into that bastion of the elite, the art world, as his first museum retrospective, "Shepard Fairey: Supply & Demand," opens at the Boston ICA, Feb. 6-Aug. 16, 2009. Organized by Pedro Alonzo, the show features about 80 works, including a custom-made mural.

How long will Fairey’s portrait of Obama serve as the logo for today’s populist zeitgeist? It’s hard to say. Time magazine’s tweaked version of Fairey’s image, used for the cover of its "Person of the Year" issue for 2008, already looks more corporatist, with Barack gazing right up the middle, in a posture of straight-up confidence and a smile that would sell toothpaste. Now that is body language.

PAUL HASEGAWA-OVERACKER is the director of Guest of Cindy Sherman.