Believe it or not, there were street artists before there was Shepard Fairey.
Fairey's ardent capitalism sits alongside his populist images in a strange modern marriage. Fairey's work multi-tasks in a unified way. His simple primary color schemes are reminiscent of Russian propaganda posters; his politics and his business model, however, are anything but communist.
Famous first for his "Obey" tag featuring the face of the late wrestler Andre the Giant and more recently for posters of Barack Obama which were co-opted by the campaign, Fairey is getting rich, one way or another. Either from iSupply and Demand/i, his current show at the ICA that opened last week, or the weekly online-only releases of a few hundred signed, limited edition prints for under $100, the man's presence is making his work a lucrative commodity.
A chilling effect results, and a broad layer of nuanced street art history is buried under the weight of such exposure. While Fairey may toy with dreams of Andy Warhol, he could be looking to the deeper foundations in abstract expressionism. As many movements had before, street art has had to sacrifice some of its rawest styling to gain passage into legitimacy. Fairey's work is a derivative, not an evolution, of earlier movements.
So when Fairey - who was served with a lawsuit by the Associated Press and arrested for unrelated warrants outside his show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the last few weeks - comes to represent street artists everywhere, try not to cringe too hard. He is doing great things for the genre, but in less desirable ways.
His popularity must not be confused with populism. Although his images of soldiers and war and AK-47s tipped with rosebuds may feel like part of some atavistic revolution against broad means of social control, his schemes are over-designed, too perfect, too schematic in their approach to suggesting true unrest. His images, in some ways, are too pleasing to be revolutionary.
There are no marks of process in his work. Even Andy Warhol, one of Fairey's most obvious influences and himself a near-nihilist in the face of art world orthodoxy, had a disdain for the impossibly perfect replication of an image. Registrations never quite aligned. Screen prints were blotchy or uneven. Warhol and his work were grandiose, but always human.
Graffiti art is by nature uninvited and often poses as a nuisance; its form requires that it be open to criticism. This does not, of course, imply crime, like many gangs do with their signatory marking of territory with tags. Arguments have been made that Fairey's images are mimeo-ed, sometimes en-masse, from vintage and period designs, which he then passes off as new work. He even admits borrowing an image of Obama owned by the Associated Press as source material for his most celebrated poster.
In spite of all this, Fairey has forfeited his credibility in favor of commercial success. When Warhol had a factory filled with the proletariat of the art world stamping away at Campbell's cans, Fairey Incorporated churns a seemingly unlimited deck of "limited" prints out through the Internet, pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
No one should care about Fairey's claim of 14 prior arrests related to the creation of his street art when he rakes in thousands of dollars every week from the sale of his prints. He ought to be slapping these attractive, undeniably cool images across the glimmering face of the museum, instead hanging them neatly on the walls inside.