Shepard Fairey’s Subversive Civic Discourse

MESA, Arizona — Protest and propaganda take a beautiful turn with Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, a retrospective of work by Shepard Fairey centering the artist’s activism, street art, and graphic design.

Museum texts state that the exhibition “reflects on the artist’s transformation from a 19-year-old skateboarding, punk-inspired undergraduate into the activist, humanitarian, father and husband he has become today.” But simply hanging dozens of Fairey’s silkscreen and mixed media collages on paper on gallery walls — albeit accompanied by detailed wall texts for individual works and a copy of his 2021 book that shares the exhibition’s title — does little to illuminate how the artist and his practice have evolved over time.

Archival materials (for instance, the artist’s early Andre the Giant stickers or video footage of him in guerrilla street art mode) would help to capture the emotional and intellectual foundations of Fairey’s creative process. Instead, the exhibition is a polished, sterile presentation of his signature style through 44 works in which he couples imagery and text with tools from the propagandist playbook, such as symbolism, repetition, plays on words, and subliminal messaging.

Even so, the works resonate with contemporary concerns. In recent years, Fairey’s commanding visuals have gotten to the heart of civic discourse and dissent, addressing the climate catastrophe, corporate greed, military aggression, and the surveillance state.

One piece informed by Fairey’s own experience with police brutality (“My Florist is a Dick,” 2019) was nearly pulled from the exhibition by city officials, leading to allegations of art censorship. The artwork features a police officer with a skeletal face dressed in riot gear, holding a baton that sprouts a red flower. Instead of being removed, it’s displayed in a corner of a gallery where it could be easily overlooked, a detail that underscores art’s role in challenging systems of power.

It’s one of the 30 30-by-41-inch hand-painted multiples on view — all prints on unique collaged backgrounds with additional stenciling and embellishments completed in 2019. The exhibition also features 14 newer pieces, including several from Fairey’s mixed media on paper Modular Discourse series, in which he collages imagery from prior works to create new visual conversations. In “Modular Discourse 60,” for example, he’s combined four symmetrical blocks with iconography such as a flower, a geometric triangle pattern, a peace dove, and a female figure adjacent to the text “PAIX.”

Although the exhibition doesn’t tease out the specifics of Fairey’s “transformation,” it serves as a powerful demonstration of both his creative evolution and his significance as a cultural instigator.

Shepard Fairey, “Big Brother Is Watching You” (2019), silkscreen and mixed media collage on paper, 18/19, 41 x 30 inches

Facing the Giant: 3 Decades of Dissent continues at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum (1 East Main Street, Mesa, Arizona) through January 21. The exhibition was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, in association with OBEY GIANT ART.

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