A couple of weeks ago, in her rather exciting New York Times review of Shepard Fairey’s first (and last) big show at Jeffrey Deitch’s Wooster Street gallery space (at the same time, coincidentally, his Grand Street loft building, along with the condemned structure beside it, was being demolished -- as if to say, definitively, that there’s no going back), Roberta Smith -- how shall we put this in the appropriate street vernacular? -- ripped Shep a new one.
Of course she did. Fairey is a commercial artist, and Smith’s stern task is to separate schlock from fine art. His fakey yellow, black and red color scheme is tired and ugly, she said (in so many words), and his art in-jokes are stupid. All in all, the show was a sad end for Deitch Projects.
It’s a thing critics do with high-flyers like Fairey -- take ‘em down a peg.
The signature Roberta Smith slam -- now that the sting has worn off, Fairey can claim it with pride -- came rather too late to alarm the collectors, who had snapped every single one of the two dozen smaller works in the front, hand-made in editions of eight each, for $2,000 a piece, while the huge, four-part mural-sized work in the back, priced at $300,000, went to a European collector.
Its sprawling imagery of a pseudo-corporatized U.S. flag, a map of the earth paired with a target on a male figure, a campy advert for an old-timey "May Day" megaphone ("projects free speech great distances"), and a picture of a sexy revolutionary femme (Fairey’s wife), pouring out a glass of red wine, does add up to a politics of a gnomic sort, rather like Barbara Kruger channeled through James Rosenquist’s F-111.
The remaining works, priced between $45,000 and $65,000 and selling briskly, were a grab-bag of poster-shop portraits of pop stars and artists; the engaging image of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for instance, is being used to advertise the new documentary film about the drug-addled neo-primitivist market favorite. The show even included an atypical (for Fairey) blue-toned picture of a surfer.
Fairey’s real failure here has to do not with his "art" but his politics. Following the (accidental?) success of his Obama Hope poster, which sparked a wave of optimistic political art (see the 2009 exhibition and book, "Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change"), Fairey should have gone deeper into partisanship, not deeper into pop.
There are a lot of Republicans out there who need to get their asses artistically kicked, if only to give a little succor to the beleaguered progressives. It’s quite possible, and worth doing, as is illustrated by the new book Repuglicans by Steve Tatham and Pete Von Sholly. Hello artists, can we have some more, please?
Shepard Fairey, "May Day," May 1-29, 2010, at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10002.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.