When the National Portrait Gallery announced last week that it was acquiring Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Barack Obama, it marked a curious development for the Los Angeles-based artist, previously known for his ubiquitous Andre the Giant stickers, as well as high-style agitprop poster art.
Fairey’s been around for a long time, but he’s always operated below the mainstream radar; his work has adorned album covers and alternative weeklies, and it has been plastered on walls and billboards all over L.A. With the Obama portrait, however, he has moved into the center of the culture, providing a graphic as instantly recognizable as the president-elect himself. What happens when an underground artist suddenly comes to occupy such a position? Fairey is about to find out.
For a sense of how he came to such a juncture, it’s worth looking at “Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey” (Gingko Press: 450 pp., $59.95), which covers the 20 years of Fairey’s career. Originally published in 2006, the book has been newly reissued and expanded, taking us from his earliest creations through his recent, higher profile work.
As the copious color reproductions here remind us, Fairey’s art has always been political; his Andre the Giant stickers are part of a campaign called “Obey Giant,” which he describes as a “case study” of the way that, as an image becomes recognizable, its value shifts from the hands of “rebellious outsiders” who first embraced it and to “marketers wishing to capitalize on the rebellious cachet of street art.”
The same, of course, could be said of his Obama portrait, which suggests how consistent Fairey’s aesthetics have remained.
-- David L. Ulin