Shepard Fairey exhibition

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Posters outside the Truman Brewery

words Mike Atherton

Making my way towards Brick Lane I’m aware of two things: I’m being watched almost constantly and the lampposts are talking to me. For every surveillance camera, there’s a sticker to read. One states “Iraqi oil for Iraqis” in a hard-to-decipher blood red font, and sticks in my mind as an enormous 4 x 4 rolls past. This synchronicity of opposed ideas (or should that be ideals) is very apt – ahead is the cavernous space inside the Truman Brewery, which is temporary home to the work of Shepard Fairey.

Flat reproductions of Fairey’s work have been flyposted to the outside of the building and, pleasingly, are already being added to and obscured by local graffiti artists and sticker campaigns. It adds a layer of the real world to the posters, one that you have to look closely for in the exhibition itself. It’s interesting to work out where Fairey should be displayed, inside or out.

Thankfully the space provided for Nineteeneightyfouria is less of a gallery and more the nearest large open area that StolenSpace could find locally. The skylights and fluorescent lighting compete to bring out the detail in the work while causing problems for those of us with cameras.

Most of Fairey’s poster-themed pieces are visceral, multi-layered collages. Newsprint and slogans just visible beneath the surface add a depth to the posters that is lost in print. If anything it’s slightly unsettling to see the OBEY signs and montages hanging in a viewing space rather than coating the undersides of overpasses in San Francisco or peeling and weathered on London walls.

The highlight of the show is a surprisingly small illustration and one of the few works held under glass. It’s based on a still from John Carpenter’s They Live, a ridiculous and fantastic movie made in 1988, which inspired Fairey onto this particular road. A skeletal alien looks out from a political podium, with the word OBEY in red behind him and THIS IS YOUR GOD OBEY YOUR DICTATOR in place of the presidential seal – in the film a subliminal message only visible with special sunglasses.

It’s a funny image – somehow obvious, but still potent. It could be said that all the images following it revolve around the same theme. By building image upon image, overlapping media and materials, Fairey is actually stripping back political protest to its simplest form: these people are lying to you.

The collages may be political, but they are also stunningly beautiful. A couple, holding hands and watching a polluted sunset, share wall space with Noam Chomsky and Joe Strummer, brilliantly realised in the dark red sheen that features in the majority of work on display. In one work, a zeppelin is branded WAR IS OVER. Well, it is over, isn’t it? All we do now is slaughter. A Fairey airship also graces the cover of the new Led Zeppelin album, and I wonder how long it will take for the first anti-consumerism sticker to appear on the album posters.

Shepard Fairey was at the StolenSpace Gallery, The Old Truman Brewery, London,
2-18 November

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