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Professor Street Art Takes a Critical Look at Shepard Fairey

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One hopes that scholarly tradition can help us reason how murals and the street have been elevated to high public art, beyond the motives that come from commercial art galleries. For that, Writing on the Wall has tapped into the mindful resources of academia, including Professor Judith Baca of UCLA and SPARC; Professor Leonard Folgarait of Vanderbilt University; and Professor Andrea Lepage of Washington and Lee University.

This thinking posse also includes Professor of Art History at Azusa Pacific University, James Daichendt, author of "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art," and the upcoming "Shepard Fairey Inc.: Professional/Artist/Vandal," both from Cameron + Company. Daichendt has been a guest of Writing on the Wall, and will soon be sending along a list of street art-related books that make a difference. Many are stacked in his office at Azusa Pacific, where shelves share space with mementos that reflect the visual texture of street art. Even though I consider Daichendt's books important reads on understanding street art, I asked that he disqualify his own titles so others can be introduced; he graciously agreed.

But as we wait for that list, I couldn't help but be curious about his upcoming book, about which Daichendt happily answered a few questions.

Which came first, a green light by the publisher, or Fairey agreeing to have a bio/survey about him that did not come out of the studio?

The impetus of the text began when I was doing research for my last book "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art." While I knew Fairey to be a polarizing figure because of his success, I was surprised how many street artists adamantly acknowledged him as a significant leader in the field and on their own work. Whether it was an initial inspiration to make art or the motivation to take their art to the next level, the support expressed privately for him was inspiring.

I've also found that my current writing typically leads to the next project, and this experience was no different. I started to read and engage as much material as I could on Fairey, from the academic to the popular press. Through this research I noticed that Fairey facilitated the majority of voices through his own publications, and the artist is very careful about his public voice and identity. As a critic and academic, it's a privilege to work outside such pressures; this placed me in an ideal spot to address both a person and an art form that present so many controversial and contentious opinions.

Once the direction was settled, and after four months of research and writing, Fairey heard about the project and asked to meet me. After discussing the project, we agreed that it was best to keep it unofficial and the separation would allow me to be as objective as possible. He seemed ok that we would disagree on a host of topics, but ultimately felt it furthered his propagandistic ideals by putting it out there.

Using Inc. in the title quickly marks an editorial direction. Was that the initial idea or did that come after researching Shepard Fairey's global identity?

Using "Inc." or "Incorporated" in the title surfaced after months of writing. While I am ultimately supportive of Fairey's role of blurring the borders of art and design, it does not mean that the book was written without a critical lens. So many of his decisions are undercut by his commercial success.

The romantic ideal of what it means to be an artist is quite different than the structured organization of a for-profit company. Achieving a bottom line and the process of making art are not necessarily complementary, and it's rare to see both flourish. By using "Inc." it plays with his duality as an individual artist and a brand, something he utilizes depending upon the context in which he works.

Fairey is the subject of many writings, both good and bad. Did this book come about to find answers for questions you had?

Ultimately I write because I want to carry a line of inquiry as far as I can. As I dig into a subject, new concepts and patterns emerge. From this journey, I see Fairey as a symbol of the changing landscape of contemporary art. As postmodernism breaks down barriers, Fairey's success on multiple fronts upsets many that work within particular silos.

In addition to pulling apart aspects of Fairey's art, businesses, use of appropriation, and his role in the contemporary art world, I also write about my own experiences attending openings, engaging with his watchdogs, and joining the line for his sample sale with hoards of hipsters. In the end I experienced everything from extreme frustration, to a new appreciation for the accessibility of his work and its permeability in pop culture; a line of inquiry that I couldn't be happier to share.

You mentioned that he gave you unprecedented access. Was that access to the process, or how the work had legal entanglements?

While the book was not facilitated or sponsored by Fairey, he is a readily accessible artist. Despite managing a pretty elaborate empire, he surrounds himself with people that allow him to still function as an artist.

Being invited into Fairey's art and design studios is a bit like visiting Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. As I visited each of the main divisions, it was fascinating to see where the ideas and creative process started and how it was completed and eventually distributed. This "fly on the wall" experience that not many are privileged to see, enabled a better understanding of his creative and professional practice.

When Fairey is criticized for being a "sell-out", is that an angry response from street artists who are rebelling against commercial exposure?

"Keeping it real" is about being true to oneself. This is especially prevalent in subcultures that utilize mantras about being authentic to the cause in question. Like punk rock, street art has many proponents, ranging from the romantic to the pragmatic. The most romantic have ideals that street art is pure and should have no association with any institution. If it does, the artists are considered a sellout. On the other side of this divide is the pragmatic street artist who uses the streets as one canvas and the gallery as another. They see no problem with either context; both are a medium for the message.

In fact, I compare Fairey to Thomas Kinkade, "The Painter of Light." Fairey's use of a street aesthetic and language is not unlike the way Thomas Kinkade utilized the language of high art to sell prints, glorified posters, and reproductions of his paintings. In the case of Kinkade, it feels like he was tricking his audience into a myth of buying "high art." In Fairey's case, he could be criticized for duping his audience that they are buying a piece of the street.

I am sure you covered this in the book, but after spending time with him, did your perception about Fairey change?

Through the process of writing this book I was able to separate the human being from the brand, and see into his insecurities. All is not as organized as it seems behind the curtain, but it also is not as cold as some would imagine. From this experience, I am impressed with his vulnerability and sincere desire for acceptance in the art world and broader pop culture. He's a man trying to do the best he can. I admire that, but I find it's much easier for all of us to critique a brand or corporation.

Above: James Daichendt at Amanda Harris Gallery of Contemporary Art in Las Vegas Arts District during panel for "Stay Up: Los Angeles Street Art." January 6, 2013. Photo: Ed Fuentes

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