MAY DAY CALLING
Antonino D’Ambrosio, who has collaborated with Shepard before on Heartbeat and a Guitar and Let Fury have the Hour, was sent some first look images from Shepard’s upcoming MAY DAY exhibition. Antonino with his familiarity of Shepard’s musical and political background wrote a great and insightful piece about the artwork. Please click more to READ what Antonino had to say.
IN ADDITION, the D’Ambrosio piece will be featured on the back side of a MAY DAY FLAG poster that will be given away to the first 300 people who attend the MAY DAY opening on May 1st. The poster will be signed by Shepard.
May Day Calling
May 1, 2009. May Day. In the midst of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. The protest spread across parts of North and South America, Europe, Russia, and Asia. Police attempted to control the protests. Working people refused to be ignored any longer. The event triggered memories of May Day twenty years before. Another factory in our Philadelphia area community closed for good. Silence. Uncertainty. Despair. Nothing. May Day is supposed to be an international celebration of working people and their long history of struggle. It’s also a time for rebirth and renewal. Still when the term is merged—as derived from the French venez m’aider (come and help me)— Mayday becomes a distress signal. We are indeed in a time of distress. Locked in-between progress and decline where basic ideas of liberty and living are changing. Celebration and renewal seem an impossible dream. Thinking back to that shuttered factory I remember that someone had pasted an image near the roof. Like a distress signal it said to OBEY. It asked something greater: think, resist, act. Mayday America. Mayday.
For those of us growing-up in the 1980s, we were witnesses and victims of the harsh conditions that first shaped what we face now in the present. We found relief in the counterculture movement of the moment. Graffiti. Skateboarding. Punk. Rap. Our classrooms were the streets. Our studios were empty parking lots and abandoned industrial parks. Our libraries were record stores. We were armed with a skateboard and a can of spray paint. Our uniform consisted of a t-shirt, a pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers, and Dickie work pants bursting with cassette tapes from bands like the Clash, Black Flag, Public Enemy, and the Minutemen. We scrawled our tags and slogans on buildings everywhere. We were telling another story about America. The decade of greed left us empty. The end of the century left us cheated. The start of the new millennium left us angry. The material is all there. The story remains to be told. It’s May Day in America.
When street artist Shepard Fairey first produced OBEY, he captured the feeling of the moment. Yet Fairey also exposed the political and cultural shift underway in America. His public art offered a visceral statement into the hidden things that shaped our country’s collective consciousness. Fairey borrowed from the French Letterists and Situationists. 1970s punk stoked his awareness. His rebellious attitude took root in both 1980s post-punk and rap music. He learned from history, embracing creative influences from Toulouse-Lautrec through DaDa and Warhol to Winston Smith and Barbara Kruger. Fairey took it all in. Then he issued a distress signal, a Mayday with images. It spoke to us. Deeply. It didn’t take much. We believed in the power of art and culture to reignite the human spirit and re-imagine the political landscape. Fairey urged us to seize the moment. It was time to place our youthful hopes in confrontation.
From that moment, Fairey evolved but retained a defiant outlook that is the hallmark of his newest art: May Day. Fairey does this by at once assembling moments of life in intricately layered portraits while in the same instance challenging passivity and doubt with activity and engagement. If Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings represent “action painting,” then Fairey’s portraiture personifies active participation. Fairey selects a seemingly disconnected mix of historical figures as his subjects. He uses every inch of negative space on his canvas—a twist on the work of artists that came before like de Kooning and Gorky’s pioneering use of negative space—to depict life in all its complexity. Go ahead. Stand close. Place your face as close as you can to the work. You will come away with a clearer notion of both the time we just moved through and the one we are now living in. It’s May Day America again.
Fairey’s point of view is sincere. With May Day, he is more craftsmen planing a table to get it right for the feel and for it’s utility as a necessary thing in our lives. Elevating the basic methods of graphic design, stenciling, typography, and screen-printing to creatively connect, Fairey’s do-it-yourself approach dismisses the worn-out argument of high (worthy) versus low art (worthless). He understands that art can transcend language translating a universal message. Fairey employs an inside/outside strategy to reach the greatest number of people. This way of seeing the world allows his art to soak in history, producing images that serve as an apotheosis of an insurgent character. Bringing together the past as well as the present, the work points the way to the future. Consequently, May Day is a tribute to those who stood on the outside of society’s margins but pushed their way inside. The courage of their convictions galvanized events that altered our political and cultural geography.
Fairey had to create May Day. For far too long a war between liberty and fear has been raging all around us. Fairey is unwilling to sit idly by and do nothing as the media blackout against humanism allows fear to flourish. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in countering with a “revolution of values.” “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Fairey takes King’s challenge—issued in 1967—and converts it into a revolution of images symbolizing key values. May Day is meant to illuminate the path towards liberty. The work stirs with the echoes of historical events from the Chicago Haymarket tragedy (a worker’s strike that turned into a violent clash with police on May 4th, 1886) to the student-worker uprising of May 1968 in France. Fairey uses May Day to sift through specific political and popular culture events including civil rights, punk, rap, environmentalism, free speech, and worker’s rights. Taken together, this work responds to the historical moment unfolding. It says we are all interconnected and interdependent.
May Day starts with the flag. Fairey wrests the symbol back from those that misuse it as a weapon of fear and division. He goes back to Jasper Johns and brings him forward in portraiture. It’s a new type of homage. With playful use of the bulls-eye in the Johns’ portrait, Fairey is not aiming for Johns’ success. He is at once honoring the artist’s enduring legacy and then building upon his contribution. Johns excited the art world with his 1954-55 oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood called simply Flag. A paranoid movement contaminated the decade. McCarthy and the communist witch-hunt seemed to be destroying the very idea of American democracy. “Paranoia breeds paranoia, but below paranoia there lies a bristling, unwelcome truth, so repugnant as to produce fantasies of persecution to conceal its existence,” playwright Arthur Miller said of his own persecution by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Whether Johns meant to reclaim the symbol of American democracy or not is no matter. Fairey is rescuing the flag. Once immortalized in perhaps the most famous photograph of the 20th Century, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, Fairey sees the flag held aloft by everyday citizens who do the hard work of moving this country forward. Like the Pima Indian Ira Hayes whose hands are holding the flag in that iconic photo, Fairey is placing the flag once again where it must always remain: in the hands of the people.
May Day sparks a new historical moment. The entirety of the work makes the very word art burn white hot outside gallery doors and beyond graffiti(ed) concrete block walls. It’s a vision best defined as Actively Responding Thoughtfully (ART) to the human condition. Fairey is unafraid to throw himself into the fray. He refuses to allow a vulgar minority to frame the debate or claim that they speak for the majority. His work is an exercise of the freedom of expression, the cornerstone of democracy. Like the subject of the first portrait produced for this series, that of guitarist and lead singer Joe Strummer of the pioneering punk band the Clash, Fairey is a creative-activist who is always FOR and never against. He is about PRODUCING not reducing. He wishes to go FORWARD not fall backward. “We are now still in the history of the beginning of that struggle” Gertrude Stein wrote. Fairey shares this awareness. He fully comes to reveal it with May Day. As I look at the scope of this show I witness Fairey’s attempt to destroy the political and cultural amnesia that plagues us in the present. He fashions a vivid language informed by history.
May Day is the pursuit of the most important thing art can achieve: advancing democracy. Fairey’s eye is always on strengthening community and uplifting the very best of us as citizens of this world. The Woody Guthrie portrait provides the evidence. Fairey offers the inimitable balladeer another opportunity to sing for us. With the melody borrowed from The Carter Family “This Little Darlin’ Pal O’ Mine,” Guthrie penned one of the most famous songs in music history, “This Land is Your Land.” For decades, key verses were “censored” from the version most children sang at school or the tune played on the radio. These lyrics called for worker’s rights: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/By the relief office I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?” May Day is imbued of Guthrie’s words. It’s time we sing this song now as Guthrie intended.
Fairey builds on this portrait with one of Bob Dylan, a musician deeply inspired by Guthrie. The image of Dylan comes from a photo of the musician during a period covering 1965-1967 where he was breaking free from those who saw him as a political savior. Johnny Cash came to his defense writing in Broadside magazine: “SHUT UP!…AND LET HIM SING!” “This was before I even met him,” Dylan said. “The letter meant the world to me and I’ve kept it to this day.” Cash and Dylan met at Newport in 1964. Cash gave Dylan his Martin guitar. Dylan then went out and recorded Highway ’61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. History. Shepard Fairey needs us to feel that this history is our history. It never stops happening. We are a part of it. Make the connections.
The most stirring moment in May Day for me occurs when I gaze at the portrait of Muhammad Ali. I see much of history in this elegiac image of Ali, head down with a clear shot of a scar he received from his last fight. Intelligence. Talent. Pain. Struggle. Injustice. Compassion. Humanity. Ali. The portrait is more a reflective rendering of the courage of conviction. It’s May Day’s fulcrum, displaying in no uncertain terms the way in which popular culture can at once serve as a conduit for dissent and alliance. “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief,” Ali said. “And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” He could have been discussing the creative-activist process behind Fairey’s work.
Fairey’s portrait of Grandmaster Flash is an inspired addition, as the DJ is a seminal creative power in rap and hip-hop, the dominant pop culture medium of the past two plus decades. This portrait links directly to the portrait of Debbie Harry. As a member of Blondie, Harry became an influential force in popular culture. Grandmaster Flash took Blondie’s song “Rapture” and included it with parts of other songs in a seven minute virtuoso solo display of his groundbreaking turntable skills. The beats found on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” served as a sonic counter-narrative of America. For years after, the record became the reasons thousands of youth around the world opened their minds to music. Fairey once again highlights the links—many unknown or ignored—between the most incongruent of artists (Link: The Clash recorded “The Magnificent Seven” dedicated to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They later performed together. Both actions broke down cultural barriers constructed by the narrow-minded).
Then there’s Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. A pair of 1980s art stars representing different aspects of American society and culture. Knitted together, they comprise the lustrous American fabric. One an openly gay artist and social activist with a pop sensibility, the other a Haitian immigrant whose hand moved with the melody of the Jazz giants he celebrated in his art. They were counter-culture within a counter-culture. Both took to the streets of New York City. Graffiti is what many called it but for us who could see and touch it, this was the best kind of art: always free and always open to the public. Both left us far too early (Basquiat in 1988 and Haring in 1990). Fairey’s portraits are not a eulogy for the lives lost. They are celebration of life, capturing the force in which each artist’s creative legacy continues to take new shape and meaning.
May Day does not seek to provide answers. It illustrates the need for fierce intellectual determination. It challenges us as citizens to define the reality of time in which we live. Fairey’s does this with the portrait of Cornel West. It moves beyond the safe explanations of the challenges of living in this world. It portrays West with left hand cocked ready to make a point as he looks to engage directly with anyone that stops to look. It pulsates with West’s ultimate challenge: “Who wants to be well-adjusted to injustice? What kind of human being do you want to be?”
Fairey’s May Day is inclusive. He invites us to join the humanistic search for an alternative to the corporate propaganda that misinforms. In one piece he asks us to reject the “Jealous Cowards” who “Try to Control” and instead “Rise Above.” It’s reminiscent of the Black Flag song of the same name but also links back to IWW songwriter Joe Hill’s, “Rise in all your splendid might.” He goes deeper with “These Parties Disgust Me.” The piece is a condemnation of the harmful alliance of corporate propaganda and status quo politics. Fairey broadcasts the distorted debate where vital social issues like healthcare are framed as a high priced privilege and not as a human right. Even greater, both counter reactionary populists who wrap themselves in the American flag. These pieces expose the farce that is the current movement rousing popular anger via a fairy-tale crafted with harsh, violent language. May Day does all it can to silence the ideologues claiming to speak for everyday citizens. It counters the myth that this country no longer belongs to honest Americans thanks to a perverted trinity of immigrants/people of color, liberals, and intellectual/creative elitists who just simply hate our country. It endeavors to bolster the spirits of the disheartened that believe progressive change will never come.
It’s important not to view the iconic individuals and images found throughout May Day as separate. The comfortable pop culture labels of who we’ve been told they are can ensnare us. That’s the easy way out. Fairey doesn’t want it to be easy. The real essence of May Day is found in stepping back and looking at the exhibition flowing together as a whole. It’s the way we should view living in this world. It’s then one realizes that May Day is an intrepid statement, a metaphor for the unseen currents swaying history. A common bond links these artists, musicians, and intellectuals. All contributed to human history. They tried to give us another way of seeing—and believing. May Day reveals that while our own individual stories are unique, we all share life’s outline. Fairey does this by varying his curiosity with portraits of John and Yoko during their very public anti-war protest—a period where they recorded Live Peace, Sometime and Happy Xmas (War is Over)—and artwork chronicling our current struggles surrounding healthcare.
Ultimately, Shepard Fairey is a rare artist—worker and citizen—who grasps that participation in our society is a requirement. May Day portrays history in color, fashioning a body of work that unites his humanist concerns and artistic sensibilities. It realizes, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, what “a fantastic monument to the best instincts of the human race this country” can be if we only keep it out of the “hands of the greedy little hustlers” that have seized control. Fairey announces all is never lost and much, much more can be won if we reject the luxury of cynicism and instead accept our responsibility of being human. This work is a call to arms, a new millennium distress signal for an urgent renewal that serves as the consciousness of its time. May Day fearlessly proclaims that the quiet revolution of the human spirit is winning.