I’m pretty stoked to show you some photographs I took at the opening of OBEY presents: “Cover to Overt” at Melkweg Expo in Amsterdam. It was really exciting for several reasons.
Firstly, I’m a big fan of Shepard Fairey, the artist whose works are photographed in this exhibition. If you don’t recognize his name, you’ll probably recognize his immensely popular clothing line, OBEY, characterized by a rectangle of solid color with the word “OBEY” printed on top. This idea originated in 1989, when Fairey was studying art at RISD. He began a street art campaign called “Andre the Giant Has a Posse,” in which images of the famous wrestler and his dimensions were printed on stickers, then distributed by the skater community all over the country. The phrase caught on, and was appropriated into mainstream culture through these stickers, as well as in everyday speech. It spurred the creation of several documentaries as well . As a result of the image’s popularity, Fairey faced a lawsuit for using the name of a trademarked athlete. And so Fairey brilliantly turned his idea on its head: he simplified the face of Andre the Giant, and changed the catchphrase to “OBEY,” mocking the very system that created its existence. This new motif became Fairey’s trope- he modified it and enlarged it and transformed it for different surfaces all over the United States. He then branched into graphic design, and from there, skate ramps and high school hallways were blessed with the iconic OBEY flat-brimmed hats and t-shirts. Today he continues to design clothing and create artwork, both on the street and in galleries. It is very exciting to see an exhibit that reflects Fairey’s journey from covert college student printing ironic stickers and getting arrested for destruction of property, to a celebrated artist and clothing designer who is famous for the famous “Hope” poster of Obama from the 2008 election.
I am also very excited to talk about “Covert to Overt” because I really like exhibits that view an artist’s work through a different (pun intended) lens. Last year, Fairey showed a series of paintings at the Jacob Lewis Gallery in NYC, and at the Art Center in Pasadena, his street art was displayed alongside other outdoor installations in “OutsideIn.” “Covert to Overt” explores Fairey’s street art through a photographic lens; that of photographer Jon Furlong. Furlong has accompanied Fairey for the last ten years, snapping photos of the artist and his work as both have developed and transformed. It is fascinating to see how photography adds even more meaning to Fairey’s work. Furlong’s use of framing and light makes these photographs works of art in their own right.
Here are some of my favorite works from this exhibit. As you look, pay attention to the color scheme and motifs Fairey uses. Also note how big or small the art is in relation to the rest of the photograph. Look at what here is Fairey’s art, and what is Furlong’s. How do the two play off each other?
“Obey. Never trust. Your own eyes believe what you are told.” This eye, filled with tiny whirring particles, seems to look blankly into the soul of the viewer. Its lack of a central pupil lends it a hypnotized appearance. Fairey seems to be suggesting that we are hypnotized as well, brainwashed by some unspeakable “they” who controls what we see. Perhaps this “they” is the government, or the media.
Beside this poster lies a black and white city. Juxtaposed with this sign, the city looks barren and and cold. There is no one on the street and the sky is a wash of overcast whiteness. The elevated position of the viewer above the city also suggests an all-knowing presence. If we can look down upon this city and see everything, does that mean we are always being watched as well?
* * *
“This has been called to your attention so you will know that it has not been overlooked: PEACE.” A giant red arrow draws the eye leftward, to where these words are printed beside a trippy-looking image of Andre the Giant, enclosed in a patterned circle. The artwork itself seemed to me to be a scathing commentary on how difficult it is to get the world- especially the first-world- to focus on peace-making. It quite literally takes a red arrow on the highway to grab people’s attention.
This image, already eye-catching and powerful in its message, is even more impactful when seen in the context of this photograph. The sky captured by Furlong is immense, highly detailed and deeply saturated. The clouds seem to reach back into the sky for miles into an infinite horizon. This framing of the sky reminds the viewer of the space he or she is present in. Space is more than just the several meters from one’s car to Fairey’s sign. Space extends for miles beyond where we can see. With this photograph, Furlong reminds us that peace is not really peace unless everyone under every sky can feel it. “Attention” calls the viewer out on being materialistic and selfish, while Furlong’s photograph forces the viewer to empathize with people who exist in different spaces.
* * *
This is a beautiful shot of Fairey at work on a mural. I like how the mural’s asymmetry contrasts with the symmetry of the two black poles in the foreground. I also like how Fairey’s clothing emphasizes his trademark red, white, grey, and black color scheme. The sharp lines of the ladder and the poles create a visual dialogue with the swirling mural.
* * *
I also really like this personality shot of Fairey with what looks like a black eye. He stares at the viewer with an unreadable expression. I cannot tell if he is confronting the viewer or attempting to model in some fashion. I am not surprised that Fairey would pose in such an ambiguous way. His art is about challenging societal norms and questioning why things are the way they are. Why should a self-portrait be any different? Why should he reveal himself to the viewer in a truthful way, when so much of the world is masked by media and coded with false meaning?
Furlong cuts off the side of Fairey’s arm. This framing draws attention to Fairey’s face and his black eye, which gives the artist an aura of toughness. He looks like the ultimate “cool guy,” which I find funny because Fairey’s art is about the misrepresentation of people and things in the media. Perhaps Fairey and Furlong were using Fairey’s person as a canvas to make a statement about image and identity.
* * *
This mural depicts the corner of a women’s face and a tear rolling down her cheek. The tear contains a dollar sign. The phrase “OBEY” can also be found on her forehead, climbing down her eyebrow. I like how this image was placed on the side of a building closer down to the ground. It means that the average passerby can see this image, and question its intention. The allusion to money and sadness suggests a commentary on consumerism and capitalism, or perhaps materialism. Is this woman crying because she doesn’t have enough money? If so, is this because she is greedy or because she is in need, because of “the system” or because of her own material tendencies? We are not given enough information to make an informed conclusion, but Fairey raises a multitude of questions worth pondering with this work. Perhaps my biggest takeaway is: our society forces us to view money in a particular way. The cost of living in most places is so high that, if we do not obey the economic system outlined by society, we find ourselves left behind.
I like how Furlong narrows in on this mural rather than stepping back to see it in its context. This way, focus remains on the message of the mural. One could say that the message becomes even more glaringly obvious, and its effect even more intense, due to the framing of the image.
* * *
I like this simpler work that uses spray paint as a material and a brick wall as a surface. The depiction looks hastily painted, as if Fairey was being chased. Given the laws surrounding painting on public property, that isn’t totally unfeasible. But it is also possible that Fairey intentionally painted “Hello Obey” in a haphazard manner 1.to cover a large amount of ground with his work in a short period of time 2.to allude to the time pressure reinforced by a capitalist society 3. because he wanted to and overanalyzing is counter-productive. These are all possible interpretations. Do you have any other ideas?
* * *
Here’s a snapshot of Fairey in the middle of painting a mural. His stance and facial expression are playful. I like seeing something light-hearted after a series of slightly paranoid responses to authoritarian society. Even the scaffolding he uses to reach high surfaces is red. The car in the background is red. I am beginning to wonder if Fairey is physically capable of seeing colors other than black, white, and red.
* * *
Lastly, this was my favorite photograph in the entire exhibit. It made it onto my Instagram (shameless plug: chloelikescrumpets. Follow me!) and it’s become the go-to image I show people when i tell them I went to “Covert to Overt.”
This image reads: “Giant cured all my obedience problems!” Giant refers to Andre the Giant, the wrestling figure i referred to in the beginning who inspired the OBEY motif. Now, I’ll be honest. I’m not entirely sure what Fairey is trying to say here- and I think that’s ok. As Fairey said in an interview with Loud Paper, ” When people don’t know what something is, they feel threatened by it.” So, I’m not going to shy away from talking about my favorite work just because I cannot fit it neatly into an analytical box.
All I can really do is take what I do know about Fairey’s inspirations and social concerns and try and relate them to this image. In several other works I showed here, Fairey made commentary on the brainwashing of the media and the watchfulness of the government. The issues seem huge and out of any individual’s control. And so, referring to Fairey’s concerns as “obedience problems” could be a humorous understatement. Stating that “Andre,” which seems synonymous to me with the OBEY brand, could have solved those problems simply by existing, is even funnier. What I take from this poster, then, is that Fairey is being self-deprecating about the importance of his brand. The work underlines the need for action on many fronts: wearing an OBEY flat-brimmed hat is great, but taking political action would be better.
Again, let me know if you gathered something different from this work, or have heard Fairey discuss this particular motif. I am really curious about what Fairey intended it to mean.
* * *
“Cover to Overt” is an incredible exhibit. I am so happy I was able to see it here in Amsterdam. Melkweg Expo did a great job at the opening- the DJ played relaxing but upbeat tunes while visitors sipped free beer and perused the photographs. Signed copies of “Covert to Overt,” the exhibition book, were sold in the corner for sixty euro. Were I not a twenty year old college student who compares bread prices, I would have immediately bought one. I did get a chance to read the preface and the introduction, and it looks like a very thoughtfully-written book. I am really interested in reading more about Fairey and his political/social beliefs.
Here’s a snapshot of the event:
And here’s a great shot of my friend looking at a display of photographs.
And here are three more pictures, if you’d like to try and extract meaning from them, and fit them into Fairey’s narrative:
As always, thanks for reading! It makes me so happy every day to see that people all over the world are checking out CanvasAndCrumpets, and searching for ways to make their lives a little more artistic, and a whole lot more beautiful.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe ❤