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'50 Shades of Black' The Album Cover Art Of Shepard Fairey At Subliminal Projects

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Shepard Fairey has a long love story with music and the very prolific artist has just opened a new exhibit which pays homage to the art of the album cover. I couldn’t attend the day of the grand opening last Wednesday, so I decided to go to his studio in Echo Park two days later, and took a look at ’50 Shades of Black, The Album Cover Art Of Shepard Fairey’. All the pieces are inspired by the 12-inch cover format and the whole exhibit is a loving visual letter, rearranged in 50 different manners, to the music and musicians who have influenced him. You will find the usual suspect in Fairey’s universe, the Clash, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, Joan Jett, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Morris, Black Sabbath… mixed with numerous political social references and song lyrics. One more time, Fairey is direct and brings all his heroes to the front. ‘When I think about how I want to reach an audience, I just wanted to make pieces that were inspired by something that gave me so much pleasure’, he said in an interview, ‘So I started doing these tributes to the 12-inch record formats…Now that people are looking at teeny, 25-pixel things on their screen that represent the mp3, it’s not quite the same. I wanted to bring that tactile side of the music experience back to the show and just do these pieces that are tributes to the 12-inch formats. So I have 50 pieces that are on LPs that I have collaged on top of and printed new images. I have put all my favorite records in a record store installation in the space with two turntables. People can take any of my records, whether it’s rare, whether it’s signed, listen to it and hopefully put it back.’

There is indeed an installation with all these vinyl albums surrounded by numerous turntables decorated with the Obey logo and other Fairey’s signature signs, but I had no idea we could actually use them! A recent OFF! album figures in the front – Shepard even illustrated a recent 7” for them and OFF! made a song called ‘Learn to Obey’ – but most of the rest of the albums are older, with for example the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, some Black Flag, Jimi Hendrix, Beastie Boys, Sex Pistols, Run DMC, Public Enemy… The collection ranges from funk, ska, hip hop, disco, jazz, soul, rock and punk and this is his personal collection, right there in display, with some of the albums even signed by Henry Rollins, Chuck Dukowski and Chuck D! Shepard knows them all. This brings a warm vibe to the place and it definitively tells us that music is the center piece of the whole show which would not exist without…. punk music mostly,… a real love affair for Fairey.

In the exhibit, the 50 pieces, mostly black and cream with an occasional touch of red, are done in a vintage style with recurrent signs, and Shepard’s unique way of repackaging something into a geometrical and symmetrical motif to make a timeless, iconic image. There is an obvious fascination for the art deco movement, the design of the early 30s, of the Soviet Union and many pieces touch some anti-war messages but most of the written messages are directly taken from song lyrics,… I noted a few from the Clash (‘know your rights’, ‘the future is unwritten’) from Iggy and the Stooges (‘search and destroy’) but I would have needed to spend hours to extract all the details of these 50 compositions.

At the end, is the show a nostalgia for the disappearing record sleeve in these digital ages? Sheppard said so in a recent interview: ‘I’m nostalgic for it, because the record itself was such an important part of my evolution and growing up in South Carolina where there wasn’t a lot of creative culture—you know, the record package itself might be the only cultural artifact in the entire equation. So it was very valuable to me. Now with the internet, there is still a lot of creativity but there’s value to it. I hope it never goes away.’

Think what you want about Shepard Fairey – some say he has sold out with, for example, his Obey clothing line – he is doing his own thing and has become a very vibrant part of the art and music scene: the opening ceremony had bands like The Shrine and Z-trip and the line was a mile long once again. His work is intertwined with music and he knows how to connect with his audience as this exhibit proves it one more time. ‘Music is visceral, but also has the additional powerful layers of the lyrics, with their content and politics, and then there’s also the style and personalities of the musicians themselves’, he said in another interview, ‘Compelling album covers have always been a great complement to great music. There’s something subversive about bundling seductive visuals with provocative ideas, or provocative visuals with seductive ideas. An audience that’s looking for escape doesn’t expect a confrontation and a call to action, but I believe the best music, and the best art, can deliver both. Call the approach hi-brow/lo-fi or lo-brow/hi-fi, but I try to use it in my artwork to capture the same energy and spirit that makes music so powerful.’

The exhibition runs through May 17, 2014 and is free to public at Subliminal Projects
1331 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA , and here are a few pictures.

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