Dallas Contemporary Looks Backward Forward With Shepard Fairey

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Although Shepard Fairey is a Los Angeles-based artist, and I am a Los Angeles-based journalist, last month I traveled to Dallas, Texas, to attend the Dallas Contemporary (DC) annual gala and to see backward forward, Fairey’s exhibition of his new work, on view at DC through July 23, 2022 – all of which was very much worth the trip.

Dallas Contemporary is housed in a renovated 37,000 square foot industrial building in the Dallas Design District.

DC is a non-collecting art institution, meaning they have no permanent collection. Rather they are organized on the European model of the Kunsthalle (Art Exhibition Gallery). Their stated mission is “to present the art of our time to the public” and the Shepard Fairey exhibition, his first solo exhibition in Texas, couldn’t be more “of our time.”

I had not been to Dallas in a long time. And if you live in California as I do, the image we have of Texas from our trusted news sources would not be the most obvious or hospitable locus for Fairey’s work which often espouses progressive politics, is pro-immigrant, and anti-gun violence.

However, like many assumptions and generalizations, one needs to dig a little deeper to find the diversity, the alternative art community, and as concerns Dallas Contemporary, the creative heart of Dallas.

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies, DC’s executive director, has been at DC since 2019, serving first as deputy director and assuming the role of executive director in 2022,. Born in El Salvador, Alvarez-Mathies is deeply engaged in the art of her native country having served as El Salvador’s Ambassador on Special Mission for Cultural Affairs from 2017 to 2019. Prior to DC, she worked at Creative Time, the cutting edge public art non-profit, and at El Museo del Barrio, New York’s premiere Hispanic Art institution. She has an expansive and powerful vision of DC as making Art accessible to more people in more ways and this makes Shepard Fairey the right artist to show at DC.

The DC 2022 Annual Gala, held September 22nd, outdoors in Downtown Dallas’ East Quarter, honoring artists Shepard Fairey and Gabrielle Goliath (who also has an exhibition at DC), and in direct view of a new Shepard Fairey mural was a sold out event. After three years of wearing sweats and leisure wear, the crowd came out dressed in their best. Black Flag founder Henry Rollins made a toast to Fairey, and Chuck D of Public Enemy served as DJ. At the afterparty which reportedly lasted to 3:30 AM, Fairey also DJ’d. A Dallas native who accompanied me to the event, said “I’ve always wondered where to find the hip creatives in Dallas. They’re all here.”

The day after the gala, I went over to DC to tour the Fairey exhibit with adjunct curator Pedro Alonzo who has known Fairey for a long time, having curated “Supply & Demand,” ICA Boston’s 2009 retrospective of Fairey’s first twenty years as an artist, as well as the current the DC exhibit.

Although all the artwork in backward forward is recent, much of it was made for this exhibition, with certain images incorporated into the new works that reflect Fairey’s entire career. We begin, as Fairey’s career did, with images of Andre the Giant, and proceed to his riveting portraits of inspirational figures from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Desmond Tutu to refugee activists, and to the symbols that have permeated Fairey’s work, such as mandalas made from weapons, and guns that are the stalks for flowers. Some of the images recall the 1992 Rodney King verdict and others conjure Police violence to Black citizens. Other images reflect Fairey’s growing concern with climate change and environmental justice evidenced in works that feature canaries and works such as “no bees, no honey.”

The new artworks are deeply realized and you need to look closely to see all the textures and layers and to grasp the wide variety of references, not only from Fairey’s past work, but also from art history and popular culture. For example, in one of the four panel works, I discovered an homage of sorts to an early Andy Warhol painting of Arthur Murray Dance steps mixed with words in a Barbara-Kruger typeface.

Yet the work remains political. When I spoke with Fairey about the show, he said, “The show title, backward forward is pretty self-explanatory. [Just like] ‘Make America Great Again’. We’re in a wave of people pushing for regression and undermining voting rights — undermining Democracy itself. Undermining science, post-truth. [There are] many references to Disinformation… in the show. So the show is looking at all of our nation’s classic issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia, all sorts of injustice and inequality, and increasingly environmental destruction and climate change. All that is addressed in the show using portraiture of heroes of mine that are meant to be archetypes of every person who’s an environmental activist or a racial justice activist”

Fairey’s work also reflects the tension between his strong sense of graphic design – which make his poster work so commercial and popular and the subtlety of the many layers and texture of these new art works.

At the far end of the gallery are two murals, one wheatpasted (as was Fairey’s original street art) and the other painted as his murals are today. It is fascinating to compare the two because they represent the poles of Fairey’s work from street art to gallery and mural artist.

Alonzo characterizes the new work as “a product of commitment and intelligence.” He sees major advances for Fairey as an artist in these new artworks in terms of craft, themes, and the way Fairey remixes his own catalogue of images to create lasting work.

In terms of subject matter, Alonzo notes that Fairey’s work is no longer that of a rebellious youth. Fairey has matured and his work reflects that. “Now he’s really [focused on] the ideas behind change. He’s talking about human dignity. Equality. Speaking up… of equal rights for voting. This is important to him.” Alonzo says Fairey’s work is less about calling out evil that inspiring good. ”I feel very strongly,” Alonzo said, that Fairey is “a master storyteller. He’s someone who helps us navigate this complicated world.”

It’s also worth noting, Alonzo told me, how much Fairey’s technique has developed. As Alonzo points out, at the start of his career, Fairey was someone making Art on the run, rushing to paste his work and not get arrested by the police for doing so (Fairey was arrested some 18 times early in his career as a street artist). Fairey now has the time and the resources to devote to his Art, and it is reflected in the technical complexity of these multi-layered works, particularly the four panel works. “This show really highlights craft, expertise, and knowledge,” Alonzo said.

“The other thing that’s interesting,” Alonzo told me, “[is that] nothing goes to waste with him. So he has these images, he has saved them, he cuts them, and then he plays with them. He might get a bunch of pieces of paper, put these images together, go back to the computer, render in the computer, come back, fiddle around with it some more, and then make the big piece. These are really involved works of art…It takes a lot of work and a real knowledge of his imagery to see where he has pulled older images from his archives. He’s digging into his archive, which is very, very rich and bringing it back to give more texture. He’s sampling himself.”

Fairey has explained his repeating images in other interviews this way, “people are busy and sometimes very slow to notice things, so repetition is essential in forcing something to register but then once it registers, the repetition gives it power…”

backward forward at Dallas Contemporary is indeed a powerful show, and a testament to Fairey’ evolving artistry.

You can absorb the power of Fairey’s Art at Dallas Contemporary through July 23, 2022. For more information about hours, etc., see Dallas Contemporary

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