Exclusive Interview: Shepard Fairey Discusses “Art Alliance: The Provocateurs” and Other New Projects

by Nastia VoynovskayaPosted on

Shepard Fairey poses with his mural for the “Art Alliance: The Provocateurs” art project, which coincided with the Lollapalooza music festival.

Some would say he’s pushing art to a new level of accessibility while others call the proliferation of his imagery clever brand marketing. Either way, it’s hard to argue that Shepard Fairey has made a major impact on the art world with his multitudinous endeavors in fine art, street art, fashion and design. No matter the medium is, the artist works from an underlying premise of making his aesthetic as democratic as possible — whether the viewer experiences it at an art show, the street or, in his latest project, a music festival.

Last weekend at Chicago’s annual Lollapalooza, Fairey curated “Art Alliance: The Provocateurs,” a huge group show featuring the likes of FAILE, Evan Hecox, Camille Rose Garcia, Jen Stark, Monica Canilao, Maya Hayuk, Andrew Schoultz, How & Nosm and many other contemporary artists. The gallery show, which was on view July 31 through August 4, coincided with a plethora of artist talks, music nights and the creation of new murals by Fairey, POSE, Cleon Peterson and RETNA in Chicago. Hi-Fructose spoke with Shepard Fairey about “The Provocateurs” as well as his other recent endeavors.

Your impact as an artist and designer is far-reaching, but we rarely hear about you as a curator. How did you have to shift your mentality in the planning stages of “Art Alliance: The Provocateurs”?

I have been a co-curator for our gallery, Subliminal Projects, for over ten years, so I have experience curating and promoting artists, but I’ve never done anything on the scale of “The Provocateurs” show. I enjoy working with other artists and I believe that promoting them strengthening the scene we are all part of is beneficial to everyone. The biggest challenge is to coordinate everything with the artists, who despite their creative brilliance, may not deal with deadlines and structure very well! Also, encouraging artists to deliver what they want, but what fits the theme of the show in their voice. I’m a guide, not a dictator.

The artists in the line-up are quite different from one another. There’s Jen Stark with her mathematical paper sculptures, POSE and REVOK who come from the graff world and then there are more illustrative painters like Clare Rojas and Camille Rose Garcia. What criteria went into selecting the line-up? Do you have a special relationship with each artist’s work?

The line-up is diverse, but each artist makes work that pushes beyond the narrow boundaries of the art world provocatively in one way or another. Some of the artists, like the street and graffiti artists, work in the streets, bypassing the gallery system to create a public dialogue. Other artists have challenging content or aesthetics, while others intertwine their art with music projects that have built democracy. All of the artists are provocateurs even though they come from several genres. The show includes political art, pop art , sculpture, installation, photography, collage, mosaic, stenciling, graffiti, and music and art collaborations. I have a personal relationship with many of the artists, but the selection was driven by their work. It is great to work with old friends, and make some new ones though.

I often hear friends outside of the art world say they find art fairs and shows intimidating. Staging this show concurrently with Lollapalooza will undoubtedly expose these artists to a broader audience. As the curator, what impact do you hope to achieve?

Working with Lolla was very important because a music audience is culturally inquisitive and music is democratic. I’d like to see art be as accessible as music. I learned a ton about making art accessible from bands using stencils, stickers, and flyers to promote themselves as well as from graffiti and street art. Art and music work great together and I hope that the collaboration with Lolla opens possibilities for other populist venues for art.

You had some interactive components planned for this show, including artist talks, music, public art, charity events and more. Can you give us a few highlights?

There [were] indoor and outdoor components to the show, as well as night time music programming featuring Deltron 3030 and DJ Z-Trip. We [had] over 200 substantial art pieces in the show and large outdoor murals being painted by several of the artists. Some local artists [helped] out with the murals. A portion of the $10 admission goes to CAPE (Chicago Art Partnership in Education). We think supporting the local art scene is very important.

Street art started out as something illegal and boundary-pushing, and to an extent it certainly still is, but it’s entering a new phase as it becomes accepted by mainstream art institutions. What are your thoughts on this evolution?

Street art deserves to be recognized as a valid and important art genre. That being said, the street artists in the provocateurs show also make great fine art. Street art, which is only actually on the street will always have edge because it is either illegal or if legal, still challenges the notion that public space should be dominated by advertising and government signage. Indoor art is not street art, it is art by artists who ALSO work in the street.

I think indoor and outdoor art are both valid for different reasons. Street artists are only one of several groups in “The Provocateurs” show, but a series of murals in the Chicago streets is a very important component of the show. The city of Chicago has enthusiastically supported outdoor murals for several of the artists in the show, so I think street art and graffiti are no longer being strictly decried as vandalism. What I’d like to see as a result of “The Provocateurs” show is a deeper understanding of the validity of all the included art forms. Good art resides in many places the art world may not champion or support. I hope visitors to the indoor and outdoor portions of “The Provocateurs” end up realizing that the world of art is bigger than the art world.

Mural by Cleon Peterson in Chicago for “Art Alliance: The Provocateurs.”

Cleon Peterson at work.

You just concluded an exhibition at the Hasley Institute of Contemporary Art where you exhibited next to the great 20th-century artist Jasper Johns. Could you please talk about what you took away from this experience and where you hope to go next.

Showing alongside Jasper Johns was an incredible honor. He has been an inspiration for me in some of his concepts and subject, but especially in the depth and textures in the surfaces of his paintings. I was able to show a large body of work called “Power & Glory” that included, paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and neon signs. I also did four murals and a storefront installation based on the concepts of Power and Glory, including the concentration of wealth and power at the very top and the decline of the American dream. Pop art built a wider audience for art with accessible subject matter, and I’m trying to push the concept of democratizing art further.

Cleon Peterson’s work in progress.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Anything else you’d like to mention that I didn’t touch upon?

I’m painting large murals in 8 cities this summer so I’m very excited to be painting some big pieces all over the world!

Mural by POSE nearing completion in Chicago for “Art Alliance: The Provocateurs.”

POSE on the lift.

Street view of POSE’s mural.

RETNA getting started on his wall in Chicago for “The Provocateurs.”

RETNA’s finished piece.

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