“I started by doing work on the street because no galleries would have me, so I find it quite ironic that I’m in one of the most graffiti and sticker-free places on earth, with my work in here.” -Shepard Fairey, 18 March 2023

An auspicious break in the atypical yet unrelenting atmospheric river of rain hitting Los Angeles this month was the perfect reason to take a coastal drive south to Orange County’s Laguna Art Museum for the opening party of Shepard Fairey’s 30-year retrospective, Facing the Giant: Three Decades of Dissent. The belated emergence of spring and its longer daylight saving time hours encouraged a festive atmosphere- hobnobbing over hors d’oeuvres and plastic cups of wine, greeting Fairey as he made his rounds, anticipating a DJ set by the artist later in the evening, and breathing in the salty Pacific Ocean air.

The yin and yang of this substantial museum exhibit featuring Fairey taking place in the wealthy oceanside town of Laguna Beach, better known to much of the country for the romances of its plastic Reality TV high schoolers and its entitled Orange County housewives than for questioning the establishment, was not lost on me. I was relieved to find out that it was forefront in Fairey’s mind as well, as he made apparent in a short welcoming speech. “I’ve always been raised by what I call the inside/outside philosophy- working outside the system, when the system won’t have me, but always trying to infiltrate and improve the system. And I’m not saying that this museum is the system in a Big Brother-esque way, but this is somewhat of a coup for me to be able to show my work in a space like this, because this is where people come to spend time and focus on art. I’m not just having to use bold colors and provocative slogans to try to capture their attention as they whiz by in a car.”

Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum. Used with permission.
Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum. Used with permission.

Shepard Fairey, who came of age as part of Generation X, a generation stereotypically typecast as cynical DIY-ers, self-sufficient rule breakers and sometimes slackers (though contrary to that label, Fairey’s work output is beyond prolific), got his art world start in 1989 as a Rhode Island School of Design student after creating a sticker based on pro-wrestler Andre the Giant. The sticker, which was glued without restraint to public surfaces all over Providence, went viral long before going viral was even a concept, before the internet, ahead of cell phones and way before social media deviously intertwined us all in its tenacious sticky web.

Facing the Giant: Three Decades of Dissent highlights 30 pieces of Fairey’s art, starting with his infamous 1989 Andre sticker and including pieces created up until 2019- a year which will surely be looked back on as a divider- the year that the innocence of normality ceased to exist and Covid-19 stopped the whole world in its tracks. “Thirty images of my career is really only a very small percentage of the work I’ve made,“ Fairey tells us this night at the Laguna Art Museum. “But I was glad I could find thirty that I thought were good enough to show in a museum out of the 2,000 I’ve made… This collection represents 1989 to 2019, some of the crucial images of my evolution, touching on lots of different themes.”

Those themes may explore different topics, but the thread that runs through them definitely ties them together- political, subversive, questioning both authority and the conventional American Dream, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots while examining and celebrating diversity in all of its gloriously myriad manifestations. Fairey’s medium of choice is screen printed paper and mixed media collage- essentially a poster- something very familiar to most music-minded Gen-Xers, but also with a long art history dating back to the 1890s with Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha, artists who also began as outsiders and eventually broke through the brick wall to acceptance in the hard-to-penetrate mainstream museum art world. Fairey’s work is clearly heavily influenced by wartime propaganda posters- Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German- the geometric shapes, the bold lines and colors, the messages undeniably used to influence and to make one think. But despite its inspiration, Fairey’s work turns the brainwashing nationalistic stereotype of a propaganda poster on its head, promoting opposite messages of peace, indigenous rights, ethnic, cultural, religious and sexual acceptance, women’s rights, environmental causes and democracy. The contrast of the objective of those wartime propaganda posters to Fairey’s intentional flip-the-script counterpoint creates dualism and that’s what makes his art important.

(From left to right) Julie Perlin Lee, Shepard Fairey, Tiare Meegan, Victoria Gerard. Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum.
(From left to right) Julie Perlin Lee, Shepard Fairey, Tiare Meegan, Victoria Gerard. Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum.

“This is actually the second time I’ve had work in this museum,“ observes Fairey. “I was part of a Juxtapoz show that was put together about 14 or 15 years ago, and I got to DJ that night also, which is one of my favorite things to do.”

The Juxtapoz show, In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor, took place in 2008 at the Laguna Art Museum, proving that this museum, despite its location behind the Orange Curtain (a facetious Los Angeleno slang term referring to Orange County’s decidedly Republican bend) has a continued history of exploring boundary pushing outsider art. That show exhibited 150 artists who had been featured in the pages of Juxtapoz Magazine, a periodical founded by L.A. lowbrow artist Robert Williams, showcasing idiosyncratic fringe art, many of the artists emerging from punk rock or the comic book world. The Laguna Art Museum itself has a century of deep roots in the community and is important because its permanent collection and exhibitions are comprised solely of California artists and art that represents the state- all periods and styles. It is the only museum in all of California to do so.

About mid-way through the evening of Fairey’s current exhibit, the lights in the main gallery dim and Fairey takes the turntables, transforming his role of celebrated artist to entertainer and guest DJ. This is not unfamiliar territory for Fairey, who counts music as one of his biggest influences and frequently spins records for openings at his own Los Angeles gallery Obey Giant. Tonight’s museum patrons, a little less eccentric than his typical Echo Park clients, turn the Laguna Art Museum into a big dance floor as Fairey once again educates, this time through music. He spirals through vinyl goodness such as Bo Diddley’s You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at its Cover and the Slits’ version of Heard it Through the Grapevine, while mixing ‘60s gems by the Monkees with old-school hip hop, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and mid ‘80s New Wave hits. As the room dances, a younger, more conservative couple, obviously enjoying the music and perhaps a bit out of their typical element, catches my attention and asks me to identify the artist of the song playing-  Sid Vicious and his 1978 cover of Frank Sinatra’s My Way. I turn to them and shout over the music, “It’s one of the Sex Pistols!” They seem to be very satisfied with this fact, a bit of a safe walk on the wild side for them, which I think nicely sums up what Shepard Fairey brings to the OC.

I do believe that art should be as democratic as possible,” Shepard deduces, “and what I hope with a show like this is that someone who normally wouldn’t look at art out on the street and consider it valid might see that work differently. And that someone who only sees transgressive rebellious things as valid might come in here and understand a bit of my evolution and history and consider what places like this show as valid. For me it’s about the conversations the art creates.”

Facing the Giant: Three Decades of Dissent runs March 11- June 4, 2023 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. Phone: 949.494.8971. https://lagunaartmuseum.org/exhibitions/shepard-fairey/

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Shepard Fairey at Laguna Art Museum. Courtesy of Shepard Fairey. Used with permission.
Shepard Fairey at Laguna Art Museum. Courtesy of Shepard Fairey. Used with permission.