Virginia Blackburn on the irony of an artist whose advertising-style works ‘market nothingness’, but can fetch thousands of pounds
Mention the term “street art” and the practioner most likely to come to mind is the urban graffiti artist Banksy, whose work has leapt in price from an average £500 to £50,000 in the past five years. However, it was another exponent of the artform who inspired Banksy and numerous others.
Shepard Fairey, born in 1970 in South Carolina, and now based in Los Angeles, was one of the first street artists and is about to stage his first exhibition in London for seven years: Nineteeneightyfouria, November 2-18* at the StolenSpace gallery in the Old Truman Brewery in London. With more than 100 pieces on offer, it is Fairey’s biggest exhibition to date, but the prices start at a remarkably affordable £60.
Beth Gregory, assistant director at StolenSpace, says: “Fairey is not quite a graffiti artist, as his work is not letter-based artwork, but he has taken the ethic of graffiti to create visual iconic images that are then propagated over and over again, in the way grafittists do.
“He uses posters, stencils and any number of different media to get the image across to more people. He understands the way our consumer society works: what he is doing is using the power of advertising, except that his is a brand without a product.”
Fairey does this with his posters adorning advertising billboards without actually advertising anything, or as he puts it, “market nothingness”.
Appropriately enough, Fairey’s interest in art originated in the street. In the mid-1980s he became a devotee of skateboarding, which led him to develop a desire to create the paraphernalia that went with it.
“Skateboarding in the Eighties was do-it-yourself,” he says. “That was what got me into making T-shirts and screenprinting. At first I cut stencils and spray-painted shirts. Then I realised my art teacher had a primitive screenprint rig in the back room. I started screenprinting shirts for myself and a couple extra for friends. You could see that in a short time in 1984-85 my whole career was beginning to form, based on that stuff.”
Fairey first made his name in 1989, when he was still at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he graduated in 1992 with a BA in illustration. He created a sticker campaign called “Andre the Giant Has a Posse”, which in turn evolved into a campaign called “Obey Giant”. The images that he created were replicated across the globe and a selection can be seen on his website (www.obeygiant.com), becoming, in Fairey’s own words, an “experiment in phenomenology”.
Ms. Gregory adds: “Fairey’s work is clearly influenced by Pop Art, Andy Warhol’s production techniques and our throwaway society, in that he creates, for example, fly posters.”
Because he utilises various media the prices for his works vary hugely, from his screenprints, the cheapest of his works, which start at about £60, to large canvasses, which climb to many tens of thousands of pounds. This is a deliberate strategy on Fairey’s part: while he is now an established and influential artist, an effort has been made to stay in touch with people who first bought his work and who would not always be seen as typical art collectors.
There is a huge range of work on offer at the new exhibition, including a screenprint run of his most famous image, Obey. It is an edition of ten and each costs £600. Then there are images that can be bought in several forms: Mujer Fatal is available as a stencil collage/mixed media canvass for £5,070, or as a ruby lithograph for £1,010. The same forms and prices apply to Proud Parents. Alternatively, This Machine Kills Fascists can be bought as a large canvas for £15,000, or as a ruby lithograph for a more affordable £1,010.
Fairey is very much an artist of his time, not confining himself to “traditional” canvases, but also working as a graphic designer and illustrator. In 2003 he founded the Studio Number One design agency, which produced the cover for the albums Elephunk and Monkey Business, by the Black Eyed Peas, as well as the poster for the film Walk the Line.
He also published a book last year, the title of which could be said to sum up what his work is about: Supply and Demand: the Art of Shepard Fairey.
This is an artist who should certainly not be underestimated. Amid all the trendiness and commentary on contemporary society, Fairey’s striking images may well pass the test of time.
*According to the Stolen Space website, Fairey’s show is running until November 25.