a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Shepard Fairey is a perfect misfit at The Warhol

Controversial artist Shepard Fairey, right, discusses his style with Thomas Sokolowski, director of The Warhol, at the opening reception of Fairey's exhibit at the Pittsburgh museum.

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Shepard Fairey wears his politics on his art and nowhere is that more evident than in his portrait of President George W. Bush as a vampire.

Bush, shown with evil eyes and blood dripping from his lower lip, is stark contrast to Fairey’s controversial poster of a pensive Barack Obamba above the word, “HOPE.” The phrase, “One Hell of a Leader,” is spelled under that of Bush.

“I’d much rather have a Democrat in office,” Fairey, 39, said tonight at a reception to open his exhibit, "Supply and Demand," at The Warhol in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The opening came the same day The New York Times reported Fairey changed his mind about which photo he used to created the “Hope” poster as he battles in court with the Associated Press, which claims a copyright to the photograph. The photographer who shot the image in dispute also is suing the artist. Fairey’s legal maneuver prompted his attorneys to petition the court to withdraw from the case that appears to have crumbled, the newspaper reported.

“In short-sighted pride I made some poor decisions,” Fairey said at the museum while being interviewed before a packed audience by its director, Thomas Sokolowski.

“I’m very disappointed with myself. I made some poor decisions," said the Charleston, N.C.-born man raised in private schools who later took to the streets as a skateboarder and street-poster artist.

The red, white and blue pop art Obama poster done in the style of the Russian Constructivism period of the early 1900s fueled claims that he is a Socialist.

But, Fairey said, he never took payment from the Obama campaign for the poster that ended up being reprinted into the millions, often via the Internet.

To his defense, he said he didn’t “bootleg” the original photograph or add to its value.

He likened his work to that Andy Warhol created from pre-existing images of Campbell’s soup cans.

“The reference is crucial to what I do,” he said.

There is no denying all the publicity over this controversy has greatly elevated Fairey’s status in the art world, or that he is inspired by Warhol’s silkscreen posters of controversial figures, movie stars and politicians. Nowhere is a museum such as this Pittsburgh landmark better suited for Fairey to take his bows.

The line stretched out the door for at least two hour as his admirers waited for a glimpse of him and his art, which also includes beautiful images of demure Muslim women. Fairey said he makes art about the Arab world to dispel Bush-era fear politics that led some American to believe all Muslims are fundamentalists bent on causing havoc in the West.

Fairey said it’s much easier today with the Internet to spread messages, and urged those in the audience to also use the Web and his art to empower people.

“Now you can be famous not only for 15 minutes, but in 15 minutes,” he said, embellishing on an overused phrase coined by Warhol about fleeting fame.

The early nad mysterious posters Fairey created of Andre the Giant promoting the wrestler's fake posse gave rise to the artist's street credentials. Andre and his a low-brow career created a mystique among Fairey's friends who believed they were at the forefront of the hipster crowd at the Rhode Island School of Design. He said he used that college experience to build upon his style of attempting to awaken people from the dullness of their routines.

While Fairey is wearing a well-tailored three-piece suit rather than a bizarre white wig and pink girdle to his premier at The Warhol, he arrives there with enough camera flashes that surely would have thrilled Andy.

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