Shepard Fairey Returns to South Carolina Hometown for City-Wide Art Show

Courtesy of Badjon Photography / Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

"The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns" runs at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art through July 12.

Charleston, South Carolina, is no stranger to conflict. It was the site of the first battle of the Civil War, and it's also the hometown of one of the most outspoken human rights advocate artists of our times. The Holy City -- named for its prevalence of churches -- welcomed back one of its own this past week, as the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston opened an exhibition of Shepard Fairey's work, along with four public murals around the city and a series of conversations with the artist. Oh, and parties.

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Guests at a private dinner above the restaurant Rue de Jean held in the artist's honor mused about the irony of seeing Fairey's work lawfully presented in such prominent locations. Addressing the crowd of both art patrons and former skater pals, the artist himself seemed a little surprised at how smoothly things had gone down with the murals around town: "I can't help thinking this is a conspiracy -- I don't have anything to be angry about because everyone has been so nice. Part of it, I think, is that the success of this show might open doors for people doing similar kinds of work, so that's good and may be progress. I'm used to as much static as praise, if not more. Street art is very contentious; activism is contentious."

Fairey's childhood in Charleston in the 1980s was a sort of battleground, where a creative younger generation waged guerilla war against an aristocratic, old Southern establishment that seemed to have little contact with the outside world. Punk rock music and skate culture crept into the city through a few vital channels, and within a few short years, the city had to issue a ban on skateboarding on city streets.

In a conversation with Halsey director Mark Sloan at the Charleston Music Hall on May 20, Fairey entertained a packed hometown crowd with tales of his hard-won celebrity as a street artist, designer and fine artist. He cited his middle and high school art teachers at the insular Porter Gaud prep school as his first artistic inspirations. He then moved on to a larger school where Fairey claimed the art teacher was "possibly the laziest human being" he had ever encountered. The lack of instruction there, however, allowed him and a fellow student to unearth an untouched trove of screen-printing supplies, which they plowed through with abandon. After a year at an art high school in California, Fairey began studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, where the legendary "Andre Giant has a Posse" logo was born. The iconic image was created as he was demonstrating how to create a stencil to a fellow art student. Fairey surreptitiously pasted small and large versions of Andre in cities along the east coast, from Charleston to New York. Stickers of the image were distributed and as they gained in popularity, the artist became fascinated by the phenomenology of the sensation.

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In the twenty odd years since Fairey moved from the South, times have clearly changed, and the old guard of Charleston has given way to a more diverse and cosmopolitan population. At the same time, Fairey became a household name following the artist's viral HOPE poster for the first Obama presidential campaign. When Fairey; his wife and business partner, Amanda; and Halsey director Mark Sloan were searching for locations around town for Shepard to display public murals in conjunction with the exhibition, several prominent property owners agreed to participate. The most impressive of the four mural locations is a large black-and-white "Icon" face (the updated and more stylized Andre image). Travelling south on Calhoun Street, one of the larger arteries in the heart of the historic Charleston peninsula, the absurd talisman of Fairey's OBEY/GIANT enterprise looms above the Francis Marion Hotel. According to Sloan: "The top of the Francis Marion was suggested by the owner Steve Dopp. It wasn't even on Shepard's list because he didn't think it was possible."

"The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns" presents Fairey's latest series of works about the energy industry and the environment, alongside a selection of prints by fellow South Carolina native Jasper Johns. Both artists return again and again to certain symbols and motifs -- flags and targets being a theme shared by both artists. Yet the two artists could not be more different in the communication of their message. Where Johns cultivates ambiguity and answers no questions, Fairey's work is pointed and exclamatory. Both artists have cultivated a personal language of patterns that run through their respective bodies of work.

Consistent with the way that Fairey operates between conventional systems, the artist recently collaborated with Hennessy to design a label for the brand. At a private dinner following the preview of the Halsey exhibition, guests were treated to a cocktail created by Fairey titled 'The Revolution.' The drink was a mix of Hennessy, Angostura bitters, jalapeno and lemon-lime soda. Like seeing a horse drawn carriage full of rotund tourists pass before the large text POWER and GLORY in Fairey's mural on historical Calhoun street, "The Revolution" is indeed alive with contradiction and has a bittersweet bite.

The exhibition "The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns" will be on view through July 12. For information, visit the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art online.