After two-and-a-half days working under the relentless high-altitude sun, Shepard Fairey and his team of assistants completed the latest addition to the visual landscape of the city of Aspen. Against the familiar palate of pine green and cinereal rock faces, the wandering pedestrian is now presented with freshly-laid tones of electric yellow, brilliant orange, and auroral purple in a display of artistry that may very well outlast its first observers. But while the aesthetic properties of the mural may be the siren-call luring passersby into a previously unremarkable alley, Fairey’s composition comes with a message. That message, articulated flawlessly without the aid of printed word, is: save our planet.
Over the course of a largely unprecedented career trajectory, Fairey has consistently proven that he is capable of maintaining a prioritization of socially conscious messages while growing steadily in popularity and demand. Since the inception, in 1990, of the ObeyGiant project while studying at Rhode Island School of Design, he has gone on to hit such high water marks as creating the seminal imagery of Obama’s two presidential campaigns and becoming the first artist to suspend a three-dimensional piece of art from the Eiffel Tower - an installation he created for the Paris Climate accord talks in November 2015. The completion of the Durant Street mural marks the 86th installment in Fairey’s Global Mural Project - an initiative to visit cities around the world and create public pieces of art centered on themes of equality and social justice.
Although Aspen has long been able to boast of exhibits by artists whose work seems most comfortable hanging in galleries, Fairey’s residency signifies the first time a street artist of his caliber has deemed the city a relevant venue for their work. Given the content of Fairey’s art, his decision to undertake the commission - a collaboration facilitated by local gallerists Katie Kiernan and Bob Chase - was the result of a detailed process in which Fairey personally assessed the cultural context of Aspen itself. In a recent interview, Fairey outlined the factors which he considers before committing to a project such as this, “It’s a few different things,” he said. “One is: Do I think it’s the kind of place that gets exciting kinds of people as viewers. My cousins both did residencies at the Aspen Institute and said how great it was here, how much of an intellectual scene there was here. And also working with some people that can facilitate a good wall. All of that makes a big difference.”
Along with finding the right conditions logistically, Fairey spoke to the novelty of working in a place people might not expect, saying, “I have multiple murals in New York, London, Paris, LA, San Fransisco, sometimes I want to do stuff in places that are not expected. I also have stuff in Pittsburgh and in places that are sort of not the art culture meccas. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and when I got a taste of a punk rock band coming through or a skateboard demo I appreciated it so much more because I didn't get access to it all the time, I know that when I do projects in somewhere like Cincinnati or Kansas City or here, that it’s more meaningful to people because it’s not taken for granted, so I like that, it’s important to me.”
But beyond Aspen’s unique location geographically, Fairey says that the specific content of each mural is tailored significantly to the causes which he believes will resonate the strongest with a given population. “In a place like Aspen,” he said, “where it’s such a beautiful natural backdrop, where I think a lot of the residents really appreciate it, the first thing that came to mind from my recent work that would make sense here was the environment. I think there are probably some pretty powerful people here, and that it might make a difference if that message of environmental responsibility is something that is reinforced every time you see the mural.”
Inherent in this consideration is a duality of subversion and subtlety which has been present in much of Fairey’s work since he catapulted from the underground domain of the DIY, punk rock art scene, and into the purview of mainstream, international exposure.
Balancing opposing forces
Early in his career, Fairey established himself as a dauntless street artist; scaling abandoned buildings and urban infrastructure under the cover of night to paste iterations of his Andre the Giant sticker-image where they would be seen by the public. Like many young artists who go on to receive widespread acclaim, this period marked a time when Fairey was able to experiment with his art and his process without taking into consideration the way in which it would be perceived by conventional institutions of the art world. In a manifesto he penned for the Obey sticker campaign in 1989, Fairey describes it as “…an experiment based in Phenomenology…Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured…to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker.” The ethos of the sticker campaign is an elevated dilution of the subculture where Fairey’s first political leanings were fostered: acknowledging the need to say that something is wrong, but exhibiting the humility to refrain from offering a solution.
Flash forward nearly 30 years later to the tail end of a worldwide mural campaign which directly addresses specific social and political issues, and Fairey exhibits his ability to so gracefully tread the territory between nuanced subversion, and outright provocation.
“When I started the Andre sticker campaign I didn't yet feel confident about my point of view on specific issues,” he said. “I felt confident in my point of view that most people sort of sleep walk through life and don't analyze things deeply, but I didn't feel confident in saying ‘I’ve analyzed things deeply, and here’s what I think.’ Now I feel a little more comfortable with that because I do actually research my positions pretty thoroughly.”
He added, “I think being didactic - telling people how to think rather than leading them to consider something maybe they haven’t - and come to their own conclusions, have their own epiphany that they get to own, that’s the way to move things forward. Not to just tell them what to think. I’m giving a nudge in the right direction…I use a lot of symbolism and I think that a lot of people understand emotionally what these things mean…there’s always a fine line between seducing and provoking, guiding and pushing, my opinion is that I think I’m striking the right balance.”
The ability to elegantly balance opposing forces is a skill that has defined Fairey’s career. Preceded perhaps only by his raw talent as an artist, his capacity for participating in the free-market, capitalist world of “high art” and pop culture while seamlessly maintaining artistic integrity and vision may be the single most significant factor in his success. To this day, physical elements of Fairey’s work retain prominent stylistic nods to the DIY origins of his process. The dominance of two or three tones in a single piece - something Fairey has referred to in the past as “a unifying aesthetic” - is a remnant of his days making punk rock flyers in Kinkos. Using the cheapest means at his disposal, the only colors at hand were black, white, and - if you knew how to “rig the machine with a paper-clip” - red. But unlike many artists who came from the same movement, Fairey realized the necessity of making use of the more abstract machinery of the social systems which their work was critical of.
Responding to the criticism that his work is somehow less relevant given his commercial success, Fairey said, “I explain it as the inside/outside strategy…I think it’s foolish of out of fear of being told that because you're willing to navigate the system that it automatically means that you’ve been corrupted by it. I actually think it’s possible to infiltrate the system, change it for the better from within.” Selectively embracing opportunities to reach larger audiences and pursue the monetization of his work has afforded Fairey the ability to focus heavily on an array of philanthropic efforts such as the reformation of campaign finance laws, incarceration policy, and Native American rights.
Asked what he would do differently if he could go back and impart some wisdom on his 20-year-old self, Fairey wishes only that he could have come to see that difference between tactical flexibility and artistic compromise earlier in his career, adding, “What does Robert Plant say? ‘Though rivers may change their course, they always reach the sea,’ don’t get off the river, just take a different course.”